Northern Ireland

Belfast flag protest: DUP and PUP submit challenges to council

Police at loyalist protest
Image caption Police have said the cost of policing loyalist protests and dealing with disorder from 3 to 17 December was £3.8m

The DUP and the Progressive Unionists have submitted challenges to Belfast City Council over the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag.

There have been nearly 40 days of protests over the council's decision to fly the flag on designated days only.

The DUP group on the council claimed the process made multiple breaches of the council's own equality scheme.

But the council said it had taken legal advice and the decision was in line with an Equality Impact Assessment.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has said the public consultation was flawed because people were not offered the choice of keeping the flag all year around.

He said he wanted those angry about the flag decision to support the legal challenges and his promises of a campaign to re-assert British cultural identity within Northern Ireland.

"What I believe is the PUP will move the protests to another level," he said.

"And by that I mean that all of it will become lawful and peaceful and we believe that there's another process in terms of protesting and that's what we would be asking people to follow."

Possible legal action

Belfast City Council took the decision to restrict the number of days the union flag is raised at its meeting on 3 December.

A campaign of street protests ensued, some of them followed by violence.

In the first two weeks of the campaign, the cost of policing protests and disorder was £3.8m.

On Friday, the DUP group on Belfast City Council said lodging a complaint with the council was "the first step towards a formal complaint to the Equality Commission and ultimately possible legal action".

It added: "The DUP is committed to pursuing all political avenues to overturning the disastrous decision by Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Alliance party and to repairing the harm to good relations and a shared future it has caused."

However, the council said flag policy decision had been "taken democratically" by elected members.

"The council has taken legal advice throughout this process and the decision is in keeping with the outcome of the Equality Impact Assessment that was undertaken in line with the advice of the Equality Commission.

"The designated days agreed are in keeping with those notified by the UK Government's Department of Culture Media and Sports."

Meanwhile, the chair of the policing board in NI has said he believes dialogue on the union flag issue will "bear fruit".

Brian Rea said "dialogue and not disorder" was needed.

Image caption The union flag used to be flown every day of the year at Belfast City Hall

He was speaking after a meeting of the policing board on Thursday which PSNI Chief constable Matt Baggott attended.

On the same day, the new unionist forum met for the first time.

"I want to pay tribute to those who are endeavouring to take this by a different route," Mr Rea said.

"I believe the dialogue that has now commenced by the political leadership will bear fruit.

"Dialogue and not disorder is the way to resolve this."

Mr Rea said the chief constable had told the board that continued use of resources to police protests and respond to disorder would "within time have some knock-on impacts on other areas of policing".

However, he added that there was a firm commitment to ensure the service to the community was not "adversely impacted".

On Thursday, the Confederation of British Industry estimated that the protests had cost businesses in Belfast up to £15m.

More on this story