Housing Executive has not yet met other agencies on flags issues

UVF flags which were put up on a mixed section of the Ormeau Road in south Belfast along with Union flags.
John Monaghan

THE Housing Executive has not formally met with other government agencies to discuss flags protocols since an initial meeting in 2005, it has emerged.

Social Development Minister Maurice Morrow confirmed that the housing body had not been to any meetings under the Joint Protocol in relation to the display of flags in public areas.

The revelations came following an Assembly question from NI21 Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea.

When the flag protocol was launched in 2005 - consisting of the police, the Housing Executive and four government departments - it set out several specific objectives, including the removal of all paramilitary flags and displays and the limiting of flag flying to particular dates and times.

However, the multi-agency approach appears to have had limited success with the practice of flying flags to mark out territory in newly-built housing estates and in mixed areas still apparent.

As far back as 2008, then Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy called for a re-examination of the protocol.

In one notable example on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in July 2014, police warned they would intervene if there was to be "any future erection of flags", citing a breach of the peace.

However last summer there appeared to be a change of policy with police saying was not the responsibility of the PSNI to remove flags.

A report by the Irish News in October 2014 showed that flags had been erected in more than 200 different housing estates.

Mr McCrea, who is to propose amendments to the Justice Bill for a licensing body to be created with the power to impose fines, said he was "not surprised" that no meetings had taken place.

The NI21 leader touched on the matter in a letter to the Justice Committee last year saying "the licensing authority may be the Justice Minister, local councils or a bespoke body".

"It is anticipated that those that put up flags should be responsible for taking them down within an agreed time frame.

"Where this does not happen, the licensing authority will order the removal of such flags.

He added: "I believe the penalty (for non-compliance) should be a fine of no more than £500 and/or a maximum of six months imprisonment."

Alliance and the SDLP have also called for a licensing regime for flags in public places with sanctions against those who fail to abide by proposed regulations.

A spokeswoman for the Housing Executive said it had not been invited to any meetings since the initial stages of the protocol in 2005.

She said: "The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) convened the group to discuss the flags protocol. The Housing Executive was one of six agencies invited to those meetings. Apart from the meetings called in the initial stages, we have not been invited to any further meetings."

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