Northern Ireland news

Hardline faction of UVF agrees flags protocol

A loyalist group linked to the UVF has agreed a flags protocol to be implemented with immediate effect

A community group linked to the east Belfast UVF has become the first organisation since the loyalist flags protests to agree a flags protocol.

The East Belfast Community Initiative (EBCI) has said only legal flags will be flown in public spaces, with limits also placed on the months they will be displayed before being taken down.

The Irish News understands that the protocol, agreed after several months of engagement with DUP South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly and other interested parties, has the support of linked loyalist organisations in east Belfast, North Down and Newtownards.

Starting with immediate effect, it states that flags will not be erected until June 1 and removed as soon as practicable following Ulster Day - September 28 - with all flags removed by October 7 at the latest.

ANALYSIS: East Belfast flags protocol puts pressure on other loyalists to follow

Only lawful flags - thought to include 'historical' UVF flags - will be flown from public lampposts.

The EBCI said it has obtained agreement from associated loyalist communities to implement "a positive cultural expression protocol in relation to the flying of flags for the year 2018".

Previous flag protocols were abandoned by the main loyalist paramilitary groups following the 2012 vote by Belfast City Council to only fly the Union flag on designated days.

The move by the east Belfast UVF, previously considered the most hardline and militant of the loyalist groupings, is expected to put pressure on other areas to implement similar measures.

In a statement to The Irish News, the EBCI said: "All of those involved in discussions have reaffirmed their commitment to adherence to the rule of law, and the protection of long-standing cultural traditions.

"Accordingly groups associated with the EBCI have agreed to fly only legal flags, and this is defined as those flags which would not fall under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2006 in relation to inviting support for a proscribed organisation.

"This is an extremely positive step by the groups, who have agreed to self regulate to ensure that our culture is displayed in the best possible manner.

"We are not blind to the contrived attempts by groups fronted up by arms-length Sinn Féin activists to make every aspect of unionist culture contentious.

"The EBCI will always engage positively in any discussions that will further our objective of protecting unionist cultural expression, and it is our firm belief that this protocol provides the framework for advancing that objective.

"We reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law, and it is in this context that we have obtained voluntary agreement that only legal flags will be erected by those loyalists associated with EBCI.

"We would hope that this commitment will be widely welcomed and we look forward to peaceful summer of positive cultural celebration."

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