NI21 Proposals For a Flags Licensing Authority

A union flag flies from a lamppost in the Shankill Road area of west Belfast

This week NI21 Leader Basil McCrea tabled a lengthy amendment to the Justice (No.2) Bill, setting out our proposals for a Licensing Authority for flags on lampposts throughout Northern Ireland. The amendment was written after a long period of consultation with Executive Ministers, the Justice Committee, local community groups, leading academics from Queens University and the PSNI.

Unfortunately, the amendment wasn’t selected for debate; deemed not to be within the scope of the original bill… despite it being somewhat of a catch all piece of legislation. However, it’s still important that the debate is had. Flags in Northern Ireland are an important expression of cultural identity and heritage, yet they inevitably present significant challenges for community relations.

Both the Life and Times Survey and new research coming from Queen’s University Belfast shows that many people are unhappy with the current free for all approach to flags on lampposts, often put up by masked men in the dead of night. The recent attack on Clandeboye Community worker Aaron McMahon demonstrated how Paramilitary flags are being used to intimidate communities and brought matters to a head. The confusing multi agency approach between Government Departments, Local Councils and the PSNI left local communities feeling isolated in dealing with intimidatory flags.

Therefore, we proposed the following amendment.

Licensing of flags on lampposts

(1) There shall be a licensing body for the flying of flags from lampposts.

(2) The Department shall provide by regulation for the staffing of the body including pension, salary and contractual arrangements, and for property assets it considers necessary that the body acquire for the execution of its functions.

(3) The licensing body must carry out its functions under this Act with a view to promoting the licensing objectives. (4) The licensing objectives are—

(a) the prevention of crime and disorder;

(b) public safety;

(c) the prevention of public nuisance;

(d) the maintenance of good relations; and

(e) the peaceful and inoffensive celebration of culture and heritage.

(5) In order to meet the licensing objectives the licensing body may seek practical assistance from the Department for Regional Development and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

(6) The licensing body shall provide temporary licences, for a fee to be determined, where the flying of flags shall cause no foreseeable public disorder, detriment to good relations, or incitement to sectarian or racial hatred.

(7) The licensing body must in respect of each three year period—

(a) determine its policy with respect to the exercise of its licensing functions,

(b) consult relevant stakeholders on its policy, and

(c) publish a statement of that policy (a “licensing statement”) before the beginning of that period.

(8) The licensing body must specify in its policy—

(a) conditions, fees and duration of licenses for flags;

(b) criteria for licensing in respect of particular heritage events;

(c) a complaints process for ratepayers about flags which threaten disorder, public safety, public nuisance or the maintenance of good relations on grounds of religious belief or political opinion;

(d) provision for the removal of flags; including—

(i) flags flown after the expiry of licence terms;

(ii) unlicensed flags;

(iii) flags representing paramilitary organisations; and

(iv) other flags the flying of which has given rise to complaints under paragraph (c) complaints process.

(9) In carrying out its licensing functions, the licensing body must have regard to—

(a) its licensing statement published under this section, and

(b) any guidance issued by the Minister of Justice.

The inaction on dealing with tattered and intimidatory flags prompted us to move forward with a legislative solution in order to find an acceptable way forward on regulating flags flown on lampposts across Northern Ireland.

Our amendment sought to establish a Licensing Authority, to allow for the display of flags to celebrate culture and heritage without being left to rot; and to establish a zero tolerance policy for Paramilitary flags. This would have been a landmark piece of legislation, given that flying flags on lampposts is actually illegal, as confirmed by the Minister of Regional Development, who is legally responsible for street furniture. For the first time, flags could be legitimately displayed from public street furniture, so long as they met the conditions set out by the Licensing Authority. This would include a set time period and regulations for keeping the flag in good condition; as too often they are left to be tattered colourless rags, disrespecting rather than celebrating cultural heritage and national identity.

Historically Stormont has been reluctant to take the lead on tackling the thorny issue of flags, and it looks like that pattern is set to continue. It’s disappointing that the solid approach we have put forward will no longer be considered on the floor of the Assembly. This issue will not go away and needs to be addressed.

All eyes will now be on the formation of the Flags Commission, the initiative stemming from the Stormont House and subsequent Fresh Start Agreements. However, with no tangible outcomes demanded of it; we worry that the Flags Commission will struggle to make any real impact.

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