British government guidance on union flag reignites NI debate

Unionists link divisive ensign issue to rolling grievance – the Northern Ireland protocol

Loyalist protesters converge on Belfast City Hall in 2013 over removal of the union flag from the the building. File photograph: PA

Loyalist protesters converge on Belfast City Hall in 2013 over removal of the union flag from the the building. File photograph: PA

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The British government’s latest guidance on flying of the union flag in England, Scotland and Wales has prompted unionist politicians to call for the standard to be flown year round on government buildings in Northern Ireland.

Unionists also have linked the flags issue to the Northern Ireland protocol. This has led to an Irish Sea border and the disruption of trade from Britain to the North.

On Wednesday the British government called on all local councils to fly the union flag on civic buildings as a sign of British national identity. This was part of an initiative to promote the union of Britain and Northern Ireland.

The guidance, however, does not apply to Northern Ireland where the union flag flies over government buildings on about 20 designated days annually.

At the end of 2012 and through 2013 Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular was subjected to serious loyalist violence, protests and business disruption after Belfast City Council voted that the flag should fly over city hall on the designated days and not all-year round.

DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said on Thursday that flying the ensign 365 days a year over British government buildings should be extended to Northern Ireland.

“Many will see it as bizarre that the UK government is only deciding in 2021 to fly the union flag, the flag of our nation, on all government buildings every day. When I visit other nations around the world, flying the national flag on government buildings is commonplace,” he said.

Mr Donaldson added that if the British government “wanted to immediately improve the union they would start with the removal of the protocol”.

The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party also called for the flag to fly every day over government buildings.

Meanwhile unionists, as they had threatened, launched a legal action aimed at scrapping the protocol. They also started a crowdfunding appeal to help pay for the actionwhich is being taken by a coalition of pro-union politicians such as DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, former Ulster Unionist first minister David (Lord) Trimble and former Labour MP Kate (Baroness) Hoey.

Ms Foster said the DUP would work with other unionists to send a “united message to our government and to free Northern Ireland from the protocol. We cannot allow our United Kingdom to be ripped apart and our UK internal market to be divided in order to protect the single market of the EU.”

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain’s union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast in 2013. File photograph: PA
Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain’s union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast in 2013. File photograph: PA

Lord Trimble said he joined in the action “because Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom is at stake. Extensive parts of Northern Ireland – much of its economic fabric – have been turned into a colony of the European Union. ”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said the “protocol fundamentally undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom, the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent”.

TUV leader Jim Allister said the “protocol annexes Northern Ireland into the EU, leaving us subject to laws we did not make and cannot change”.

Baroness Hoey said she was “not prepared to allow those living in Northern Ireland to be treated as second-class citizens of our own country – the UK”.

Former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib said the UK was “the only country in history to have voluntarily partitioned itself. We must not rest until the protocol is ended. It is vital that all pro-unionists join together in this fight.”