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Executive departments at odds over number of flag meetings

The multi-agency joint protocol was supposed to deal with issues such as the flying of flags outside the Catholic Chapel in Dervock, Co Antrim
John Monaghan

EXECUTIVE departments are at odds over how many meetings have taken place to discuss flags protocols.

The flag protocol was launched in 2005 consisting of the police, the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the departments of Regional Development, Environment and Social Development.

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.

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.

There have been calls to replace the failed initiative with a licensing authority.

Since the DSD confirmed that the Housing Executive had not held any meetings since the initial stages, other government agencies have also responded to questions in the Assembly regarding their attendance.

The Department of Environment said it had been at two meetings in 2009 while OFMDFM has been at seven meetings.

However, the Department of Environment said it was only aware of two meetings in October and November 2009.

Only two organisations, the PSNI and the Department of Regional Development, have attended the same number of meetings - ten - since the protocol was launched.

There is also confusion over which agency is supposed to take the lead on flag issues.

Regional Development Minister Michelle McIlveen said: "Paragraph 3.3 of the 2005 Joint Protocol on the Display of Flags in Public Areas states: 'Whichever agency is placed in the most effective position to consult, negotiate or resolve situations, will take the lead and will be supported by the other partners within their remit and specialism.

"Where the display is one that is causing community tension or is affecting the quality of life for a community, then the police will take the lead."

For their part, the police seemed to indicate that OFMDFM were the lead agency.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said: "Since then (the launch of the protocol), at the request of the OFMDFM, the PSNI has attended seven meetings between 2008 and 2013 to discuss the way forward.

"The recent Fresh Start Agreement commits to establishing a Commission for Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition by March 2016. Until agreement is reached on this issue, police will continue to operate within the principles of the 2005 Joint Protocol.

"We will work with local communities and respond to any issues where there is a concern for public safety or where it is believed a criminal offence has occurred."

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

The figure for meetings came following a series of Assembly questions from NI21 Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea, who is to propose amendments to the Justice Bill for a licensing body to be created with the power to impose fines.

In a letter to the Justice Committee last year he said: "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."

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