Unionist council removes ‘Unionist’ symbols…

That is, if you include the badge of the Hampshire Constabulary as an offensively ‘British’ symbol. This issue was flagged up on David Vance’s blog a few days ago in one of his overviews of the Dromore by election. Banbridge District Council (a council with a vast Unionist majority) has removed a number of symbols of Britishness after an equality impact assessment:

The items include a painting of an RAF vehicle checkpoint, entitled ‘Freeze all Movement’, which had been on display in the Committee Room, an oil painting of an Orange lodge, and plaques presented by the RUC Male Voice Choir, the Royal British Legion, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Ulster Special Constabulary, the Royal Irish Rangers, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Hampshire Constabulary and the Royal Air Force Irish Guards. It is understood they have been moved to the chairman’s room, public access to which is by invitation only.

Drew Nelson, a critic and thought to be close to the TUV candidate Keith Harbinson:

“The council have acted improperly by removing a number of items from public display in the council building prior to the consultation. All of the items which have been removed would represent Britishness and it appears that there is a determined effort somewhere to wipe the face of Britishness from Banbridge Council and its property or at least to have that aspect of the council hidden behind closed doors.

“As someone who served in the UDR for 11 years in the Banbridge area and while still fresh in my mind are the memories of colleagues in the UDR and other branches of the security forces who were murdered, I find it personally demeaning that these items have been removed from public display. This has led me to the conclusion that people from my background are not as welcome in Banbridge District Council as we once were.”

Paragraph Five of the Consultation Document lays out the prospective conditions for such a removal:

Aim of proposed policy

5.1 In developing a policy on the display of flags and emblems, the Council would wish it to be seen as a way of further promoting equality of opportunity for all in its District and promoting good relations between groups regardless of their political opinion, religious belief, racial background. It should also ensure that employees and visitors are able to work and meet in an environment free of harassment, intimidation or offence. It should also show due respect to those who have presented the Council with gifts and insignia appropriate to their organisation.

5.2 The Council recognises the benefits to the area as a whole of being perceived as a welcoming location: in attracting shoppers, tourists and investment from all. It also aims to promote the District in a way which recognises and celebrates its diversity – and in particular the growing diversity within it – in a mature but open manner – which promotes respect for difference. The Council also believes that change should be brought about in an inclusive and measured manner, which acknowledges sensitivities and the opportunities for learning presented. It is widely accepted that there are good relations generally throughout the District and the Council aims to build on this, through meaningful and measured change, agreed constructively over time. It aims to deliver through this policy the goals of partnership, equality and mutual respect.

Impact / likely impact of policy

5.3 The Council believes that this policy primarily affects people of different religious belief and political opinion. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the other Section 75 categories ie, sex, marital status, disability, race, age, caring status, sexual orientation are adversely affected by the existing practice or proposed policy, but the Council is keen to hear from representatives of or individuals in any of the above groups should they feel that they are subject to any adverse impact by this policy.

5.4 Given the equality profile of the local community, patterns of public perception on emblems as outlined in Sections 2 and 3 of this report and its obligations at law, the Council believes it needs in this policy to balance what may often be differing, if not conflicting, views. It welcomes responses from as many as possible to allow it to fully gauge the impact / likely impact on the people in the District. Where change is necessary, as a result, the Council plans to embark on change sensitively, as opportunities arise, taking full account of the views of those who respond and have an interest.

Mitigating measures to better promote equality

5.5 Accordingly the Council proposes the following explicit changes to existing practice:

(1) The Council will not allow the public display of emblems which are likely to cause offence, whether intended or not, on its premises. The standards applied in case law, and guidance from the relevant statutory bodies will be used in determining which emblems fall within this category. In practice this will relate to emblems which may be associated with the conflict or the Troubles, but not symbols which are merely likely to identify an individual’s religious affiliation.

(2) The Council is conscious of the need to display any emblems, which may be contested, in a manner, location and frequency that is sensitive to differing views. It is therefore seeking views on developing a specific facility for displaying gifts presented to the Council, which may tend to distinguish association with one community rather than another. This will be developed in such a way that the facility is not on general public view at the Civic Building, so that unnecessary offence need not be caused, but which accords the gifts a respectful acknowledgment, and allows those who wish an opportunity to view them. An alternative approach is to leave the determination of the display of such materials to the Chief Executive and Chairman, for example in the Chairman’s Room.

(3) Given the sensitivities surrounding the issue of the flying of the Union Flag, and the apparent divergent opinions of the Protestant / Unionist community and the Catholic / Nationalist community outlined in research, the views of all elected members were sought. Whilst a full range of views were expressed, including opposition to the current practice of flying the Union Flag, the overriding view expressed by members was to retain the existing practice of flying the Union Flag at its Headquarter site. The Council will take a final decision following consideration of the consultation responses received from interested parties and individuals and specific legal opinion.

(4) Where, following consultation, and final decision-making, revisions to existing practice are agreed by the Council, these will be adopted in a measured way so that the good relations that already exist in the Council are maintained and respect for diversity is further built on.

5.6 Consultees are invited to comment specifically on the proposals outlined above

It throws a slightly different light on some of the discussion about Limavady lately: particularly here on Slugger. The fact that it is a course of action resultant from legislation requiring the Council to take such action, won’t prevent it from being an issue in the upcoming by election…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty