Who needs bus lanes when a flag might block the Belfast traffic?

The Continental Market at the front of the City Hall will be open until 8pm on Monday evening, enticing visitors and shoppers to wander around the stalls and feel good about Belfast.

Around the back of the City Hall, a rally will be held at 5.45pm on Monday evening to protest at the likelihood that the full Belfast City Council meeting at 6pm will vote to reduce the number of days that the Union Flag flies from the civic building.

At the 23 November meeting of the Strategic, Policy and Resources Committee, Sinn Fein and the SDLP voted to take the Union Flag down altogether from BCC buildings.

On Monday evening the full Belfast City Council meets and on its agenda is a vote to ratify the committee’s decision.

Alliance are expected to support the ‘middle ground’ whereby the Union Flag is flown on designated days from the City Hall and never from other buildings such as the Ulster Hall.

Unionist parties (who illogically or at least uncharitably state that Alliance are voting with the nationalist parties to remove the Union Flag) will move from leafleting to voting and demand that the flag flies all the time.

While nationalist councillors on the committee voted for the full removal of the Union Flag, it is expected that they will vote for Alliance’s compromise position and support retention on designated days.

Supporters of flying the Union Flag have been called to protest at the back of the City Hall at 5.45pm. I don’t see anything registering the protest on the Parades Commission website, but some reports have suggested that upwards of two thousand people are expected to rally. [Perhaps since it’s not a protest against a parade, only the PSNI and not the Parades Commission need to be informed?]

Even if two hundred people gather the crowd is unlikely to stay on the pavement and will disrupt the already curtailed traffic going past the back of the City Hall. At a previous rally against the then Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile’s decision not to hand over a Duke of Edinburgh award to an army cadet, PSNI landrovers were on the scene and traffic just about crawled past the angry throng.

Alderman Christopher Stalford – a previous High Sheriff of Belfast – moaned on Facebook about the slow traffic on Howard Street last Thursday:

Tomorrow night, he and his fellow unionist councillors are associated* with a protest that will block the traffic. This time, the bus lanes will be entirely blameless. Instead it will be over what North Down councillor Brian Wilson is alleged to have described as “a piece of cloth”.

[* Associated in at least the sense that unionist councillors are allowing other people to post details of the rally on their Facebook timelines and not removing them.]

Strong unionism would surely not fall into the trap set for them by nationalists? Belfast’s history is littered with disputes over flags: it’s a die in the ditch topic that they could not ignore.

Whatever the different measures of public support, the practices of other councils around the UK, the equality assessments or the legal considerations, the row over the Union Flag has been caused Belfast unionist politicians to send out very mixed messages.

Joint statements have been issued on behalf of DUP and UUP councillors in a tangible sign of unionist unity. Not that it would be unexpected to see unionists uniting around the British flag, but to campaign together is perhaps a sign of DUP dominance and UUP weakness.

Thousands of Alliance-coloured leaflets have been have been distributed by unionist supporters. Does it really take a flag to get politicians going around the doors in the cold weather and out of election season. Not welfare reform. Not social housing. But flags. There better have been votes in it to justify the frostbite! (In the east of the city, the plan will have been to devalue Alliance and take back some of the voters who elected Naomi Long ahead of Peter Robinson in May 2010.)

Organising a rally that will disrupt middle class DUP voters on their commute home from work and damages the kind of nouveau Belfast image that the Continental Market and retailers are working hard to achieve. Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster, Invest NI and the Tourist Board will all be with the rally’s timing that is perfect to make it onto the national Ten O’Clock news and share a story that Belfast can be proud of.

In the middle of all this, Belfast unionists look positively last century compared with Peter Robinson’s rhetoric at the DUP’s party conference. No sign of “abandoning out-dated dogmas” or making adjustments to become more attractive to disenfranchised Catholic voters.

One wonders why the party leader has allowed DUP councillors in Belfast to go so off message and be manoeuvred into a cul-de-sac? Monday night’s rally had better not turn ugly or else DUP councillors may end up drying their eyes on one of the very flags that’s at risk of coming down.

Postscript – unless Alasdair McDonnell’s analysis is correct?

Peter Robinson’s ambition is not for the people of the North – it is for unionist domination at any price: starting with the repression of Irishness and the subsuming of the UUP.

He has made his position particularly clear by saying he believes that a shared society means everyone sharing in being British – running contrary to all the fine words used when the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration working group was set up.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.