Stephen Farry MLA said: “It is not only disappointing but deeply concerning that Peter Robinson cannot see the need to better address the misuse of national and other flags on public property and within shared space.
“All public areas within Northern Ireland belong to all the people of Northern Ireland and should be treated as shared space. This includes the communal areas within housing estates and the public highways.
“Frequently many parts of Northern Ireland are marked through the proliferation of flags on lampposts – claimed by one part of the community but excluding another. They remain up over long periods of time, eventually turning into rags. These flags are used to mark out territory and often perceived as intimidation. They are often placed at interfaces, outside schools and churches, and deployed to stake a claim on new housing developments. In recent weeks, we have seen both Union Flags and Tricolours put up for political reasons.
“Of course Alliance respects people’s right to fly any non-proscribed flag from their own property, irrespective of whether it is owned or rented. However, the erection of any advertisements or other symbols within public space normally requires permission and indeed the Roads Service regularly takes action against illegal signs. Yet, flags are often misused and abused when they are erected with impunity.
“They are imposed upon communities, leaving people often feeling disempowered and intimidated from speaking out. It is not just people from a different communal background to that associated with the flag that have difficulties, but indeed people from the same perceived background who often object to the misuse and abuse of their cherished symbols. There is great frustration by the silent majority right across the community at this abuse of flags.
“The only logical conclusion of a laissez-faire approach to the Union Flag on lampposts would apply equally to the symbols of any other tradition, including the tricolour. This is a recipe for tension and confrontation.
“Alliance believes that special care should be taken with symbols of identity in a society which has a history of division and violence over nationality. That is why we believe that it is appropriate for the Union Flag to fly on designated days. In other places, public space belongs to everyone and should be respected as such. The unregulated flying of flags for partisan purposes, or to dismiss others, is damaging to our economy, damaging to community relations, and creates a source of potential tension and violence.
“There are times when different parts of the community will want to mark historical or cultural traditions. If it is done with sensitivity, respect and a sense of openness to all, this is a positive contribution to a diverse, open and shared society. It is in this respect that a form of regulation must be developed. This would be much preferable to a sanitised and neutral public space that the current approach to other symbols would suggest.
“The current inter-agency protocol on flags is widely regarded as being ineffective. There is now a need for a new approach. Are the DUP really so blinkered that they are not prepared to draw a distinction with the appropriate use of a flag as a symbol of sovereignty on public buildings and the misuse of that flag to mark out territory?”