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The BBC's Tom Coulter
"The flying of flags has been a controversial topic for many years"
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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Sinn Fein criticised over flag stance
Stormont flag
All eyes on where the Union Flag is flown
Sinn Fein ministers have been criticised for not allowing the Union Flag to fly over their government departments in Northern Ireland.

The education minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, confirmed he had asked his officials not to fly the Union Flag over his department's offices in Bangor, County Down.

Friday is one of 13 days in the year when the Union Flag may be flown on designated government offices in the UK and it marks the 47th anniversary of the Queen's coronation.

Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness: Asked officials not to fly Union Flag
Mr McGuinness said his party wanted to promote mutual respect for the flags, symbols and emblems of both traditions in Northern Ireland.

He said if the Union Flag was going to fly on government buildings, then so should the Irish tricolour.

Mr McGuinness said he agreed with the deputy first minister, the SDLP's Seamus Mallon, that there needed to be respect for each community's traditions.

He said: "We should not allow this issue of flags to in any way exacerbate the political situation out there."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson has described the flags issue as "an unnecessary dispute" and he said he was confident it could be resolved.

Mr Mandelson said: "I do regard this as an unnecessary dispute.

"I said when I took the power a few weeks ago that I hoped the executive would be able to reach a consensus on this matter, and that remains the case."

He told the BBC Radio 4 programme The World At One that he had "no illusions" that the problem could be solved overnight as it has "dogged Northern Ireland politics for very many years".

Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein health minister Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Fein banned the Union Flag from the public buildings they were in charge of during the last short-lived devolved administration.

The flying of flags has become an emotive and divisive issue between republicans and unionists and is set to test the unity of pro-agreement parties within the Stormont assembly.

There is no doubt about the very strong feelings that exist on this

David Trimble
Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey believes the Union Flag should be flown.

"Our problem of course, is firstly, the flying of the Union Flag is a legitimate expression of the consent principle.

"The Union Flag is a constitutional symbol, it flies by custom and practice on, I think, 13 days per annum.

"The denial by Sinn Fein ministers of that principle and, in effect, refusing to allow the Union Flag to fly over their departments, is in our view, a denial of the consent principle - the basic building block of the agreement."

However, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said the Good Friday Agreement allowed for parity of esteem.

Flag fluttering
The flying of flags: An agreed strategy remains elusive
A tense debate on the issue at Thursday's executive committee meeting failed to agree a common strategy, with a decision left up to individual ministers.

Speaking on Thursday, Ulster Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble said: "There is no doubt about the very strong feelings that exist on this".

"It would be a good thing if we could resolve the issue ourselves.

"If ministers proceed to act in a way which gives rise to hurt and concern in the community, it's going to make it more difficult."

The first full meeting of the assembly since devolution was restored is due to take place on Monday.

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See also:

02 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
Tension over flag flying
27 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Mixed reaction to devolution vote
27 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Returning to power
27 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Unionists back power-sharing
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