After a potentially shaky start, the Council got down to business and it gave me great satisfaction when, at my suggestion, the Party Group Leaders agreed to meet on a regular basis to discuss matters which would be of benefit to the citizens of Belfast.
Earlier this year the Council was able to publish its Investment Programme which set out ambitious proposals for the improvement of Belfast and which in its Local Investment Fund would allow councillors to promote programmes in their own areas which would benefit their constituents.
For the first time in the history of this Council and because of this cooperation the Party Leaders were able to go together into the five quarters of Belfast and promote their programme.
While this co operation was unique in the history of Belfast, there was always, lurking at the back of my mind, the thought that the day was fast coming when the decision on the flying of the Union flag would have to be made and that if agreement could not be reached between Nationalists and Unionists, the decision would rest with us.
I have indicated on many occasions over the past few weeks that the Alliance Party recognises the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom until the people of Northern Ireland decide otherwise.
This is the agreement signed up to by the leaders of all the parties in this chamber in the Good Friday, Belfast or St Andrew’s Agreement. Therefore the Union flag is the flag which should be respected by the citizens in this part of the United Kingdom.
The Agreement by which we live today was a huge breakthrough and it is worth quoting
“We recognise the birthright of all people to identify themselves and be accepted as British or Irish or both as they may so choose”.
In other words Sinn Fein agreed that
“the British could be British and here of right, and Unionists agreed that to be Irish is to belong as an equal citizen in Northern Ireland and not be a threat”.
The signatories to those agreements acknowledged the
“Substantial differences between our continuing and equally legitimate political aspirations”.
And declared that
“We will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements”.
That was 15 years ago and due to lack of meaningful leadership there is little evidence of any generosity on that front.
In every issue which divides us, the only leadership that matters is leadership that seeks reconciliation.
We should remember that tonight.
To Sinn Fein I say:
You know that your scorched earth policy on anything British is an offensive and deeply sectarian attack on many good people in this city. It has nothing to do with peace building and is in direct contrast to what your leaders signed up to in 1998 and what they work at Stormont.
Your tactics in this Council have been aggressive and bullying – something we have told you on many occasions.
By carrying through the decision of the Policy and Resources Committee you will be ignoring the wishes of a very large number of citizens of this city whom you have avowed to respect.
And if you think that this is a step “to a bare flagpole” as has been so emotively suggested by the DUP spokesman, I would ask you to think again and this is what we voted against at committee and will continue to do so.
I would ask you to reconsider your decision.
Should you along with the SDLP decide to vote that the flag be flown on designated days it will surely be a historic day for this city. This would show in a practical way that you do acknowledge the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and that there is hope for the future.
To the Unionists and especially the DUP I say:
I am well aware that you were given the order to do anything that was necessary to get Alliance Party to change its mind. You did your best to execute that order.
I will not indulge myself by going into details of the despicable and shabby campaign you waged against us – the untruths you published, the 40,000 misleading leaflets you dropped in very selected areas of the city, the threats and the inducements you offered. These did not work.
This so called wishy washy, middle of the road, sitting on the fence, doesn’t know what it’s doing party resisted all of your threats, intimidation, allurements and blandishments. They were to no avail.
Against this backdrop, we have to decide what to do about the flag in the City Hall.
The Alliance Party has a very clear position on this: the answer must reflect the expressed will of the people, must be done in a respectful and tolerant spirit and must be consistent with practice elsewhere.
We have held this position for many years and we are proposing it tonight:
That this Council should adopt the practice of flying the Union Flag on the designated days, as applied in Parliament Buildings. This reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland, confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories. By doing it regularly and with dignity, we recognise that we live in a society and city made up of people who are British, Irish and both.
The designated days solution does justice to these principles: the agreement by all on British sovereignty, the fact of a shared society, the need for respect and avoiding all triumphalism and the arrangements currently operating at Stormont.
It also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.
Councillors, we should be very careful how we behave.
The people are watching us.
Just at the point where we need maximum civic leadership the City Hall has the potential to descend yet again into a place of ridicule.
And I mean it when I say; there is NO POINT in promoting an investment strategy one day and demonstrating that there are a million better places to invest the next.
This type of politics has consequences for the future of this city as an economic leader and for the wellbeing of its citizens.
Tomorrow whether the flag is flying or not we will have business to do.
There will be important decisions to be reached at the Development Committee which I hope will affect, for the better, the citizens of this city.
It is time to grow up and vote for a grown up solution.”