Emma Little-Pengelly: I 'offered to remove' loyalist flags from housing scheme
THE DUP's South Belfast MP has defended her response to UVF flags in a shared housing area where Catholics have been intimidated from their homes.
Emma Little Pengelly said she offered to "personally remove them at the time", but no-one thought it was the "best option".
It comes after four Catholic families fled their homes this week following threats which have been blamed on loyalist paramilitaries.
The Housing Executive (NIHE) said "a number of families in the south Belfast area have presented to us as homeless claiming sectarian intimidation".
The residents live in Cantrell Close off Ravenhill Road – a housing development that was part of a multi-million-pound Stormont 'shared communities' strategy.
In June there was controversy after UVF and other loyalist flags were put up in Cantrell Close and Global Crescent.
At the time Ms Little Pengelly faced criticism for saying most people "didn't want a public fuss" about the flags.
She later said she "opposes all paramilitaries in our society, that includes paramilitary flags".
In a statement yesterday, the MP described the threats as "absolutely disgraceful" and said they "must be condemned by everyone".
But in a Twitter exchange with Alliance leader Naomi Long, she defended her response to the earlier flags controversy.
She wrote: "I offered residents to personally remove them at the time if that's what the shared community wanted but no-one thought that was [the] best option."
Responding, Ms Long said they were "likely worried about recriminations", and accused Ms Little Pengelly and the DUP of being "in denial about intimidating nature of flags on lampposts".
Ms Little Pengelly replied: "Instead of supposition and projecting views on this shared community, I actually spoke to residents."
She added: "Ultimately it is the residents who live there – it is their community – who are key. Important to speak to and listen to their views."
Ms Long said: "Their views are clear, Emma. Didn't want flags and so didn't put them up and they definitely didn't want to be threatened out of their homes."
The developments – managed by Radius Housing, formerly known as Fold Housing – are part of the Stormont executive's 'Together Building United Communities' programme.
Launched in 2013, the strategy is aimed at "improving community relations and building a united and shared society".
Ms Pengelly was a special adviser to then First Minister Peter Robinson when the strategy was launched.
One of the residents under threat described yesterday how the PSNI visited his home late on Tuesday night to inform the family.
"I've just got my family out of there. We're moving into temporary accommodation at a friend's house," he said.
The man, whose partner is pregnant and due to give birth in January, said he was "stunned" by the threats.
"We thought all this was over and done with 15 years ago and it's still going on," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme.
"We've been living there for just over a year and never had a problem with no-one, talked away to the neighbours, everyone was really nice, then this just came out of nowhere."
Sinn Féin's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said: "This is meant to be a shared neighbourhood and it is completely unacceptable that people are being intimidated by the UVF in this day and age."
The SDLP's Claire Hanna said: "Shared housing is vital for progress in this society and it must be protected. We cannot live in a society where families are being threatened out of their homes."
PSNI chief superintendent Chris Noble said it didn't want to speculate about which organisation was behind the threats.
"There's an active investigation, we're working with the paramilitary task force to understand who is behind it," he said.
"Whoever it is has no regard whatsoever for what the people of east Belfast want in terms of a community working together and without division."
Radius Housing said it was "engaged with the PSNI, NIHE as well as our tenants, community and political representatives as we address this ongoing issue".