Good Relations Committee Chairman Speaks Out

Dear Sir, In the pit of the recession, when our A&E unit is under threat, the four major parties in Down District are fighting over flags and imperilling the cross-community nature of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in the run up to a local election on 5th May. This is a disgrace. As Chairperson of the all-party Down District Council “Good Relations Committee”, I have a duty to clarify how things have come to such a sorry impasse, and suggest how we can climb out of this mess before we ruin the wonderful St. Patrick’s Festival that our local communities have been building up for 25 years. The Good Relations Committee was set up three years ago to resolve contentious issues like flags and monuments on a cross-party basis by consensus, and its members who were representing their parties have worked hard to conclude their work before the upcoming local elections. As of January of this year, all parties were signed up to new guidelines on these issues, which were to go before council. [caption id="attachment_10338" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Green Party Councillor Cadogan Enright, Chairman of the Down District Council Good Relations Committee, has spoken out against the row between other councillors over the flags issue in the St Patrick's Day Parade. "][/caption] Key to reaching this consensus was the agreement that no party would fight these issues “through the media” but would settle their differences in a respectful and consensual manner where all parties conceded ground to each other. The outputs of our deliberations were published in the local media last year as part of a consultation process. Down District looked in January like it was to be the first local government to agree these matters after 15 years in a civilised manner. Arising from a pre-election spat between the SDLP and Sinn Fein, all this good work could now be undone. First of all, SDLP Chair Eamonn O’Neill broke with the agreement on not going to the media to resolve these issues by making an announcement on flags that had not been agreed by the other parties. He also failed to follow protocol in not contacting me as Chair of the sub-committee. Then SF’s Eamonn McCon Midhe has reacted in a disgraceful manner by not only responding in kind, but escalating the problem by threatening to swamp the Parade with Tri-colours. Naturally, this has provoked Unionist politicians such as the  DUP’s Billy Walker and UUP’s Des Patterson, with Billy threatening to retaliate and to pull his party out of the Good Relations Committee and repudiate all agreements signed up to. We now have the spectre of a DUP v’s SF sectarian spat over the St. Patrick’s Parade designed to drum up votes before the election – and we are all supposed to forget that they are in Government together. This is just sectarian window dressing ahead of the election. For the record, here is what happened with the so-called St Patricks flag. This flag was brought in years ago as part of a council effort to find a cross-community symbol that would persuade people not to bring Tri-colours to the St Patrick’s Parade. Unfortunately it was done at short notice with little research into where this flag came from. Few people in the district realized that it was actually the “Irish” component in the Union flag – and therefore arguably the same as a Tri-colour as the flag of only one side of the community. This issue was first raised on the Good Relations Committee by the SDLP more than a year ago. Arising from the SDLP input, the consensus was that we could support the Tri-colour on the St Patrick’s Parade, then we could hardly behave differently with the Union flag if the Parade was to be a cross-community event. It was first proposed that we adopt the symbol used by the Tourist Board for the St Patricks Trail as this would have huge economic benefits for our District. It was suggested that we add the Shamrock as used by the Irish Rugby team too. All parties initially supported this, but the DUP later felt they could not agree. The DUP’s Billy Walker suggested that we did not need a new flag, as we already had the Down Council flag – in the absence of any other consensus it was the DUP’s idea that was agreed to be put to council by the Good Relations Committee. Sadly, before this could be done, the outbreak of rancour in the press occurred and now we find years of community development work at risk, and a wonderful family day marred by an out-break of old-fashioned tribalism that has the potential to damage the local economy. I would publicly appeal to Eamonn McCon Midhe to leave his flags at home, and to Billy Walker to undo both his threats to both withdraw cooperation from the Good Relations Committee and against myself as its Chair. I appeal to the SDLP and the UUP to stay out of the media on this issue as we have all previously agreed. I suggest we put these matters aside, and after the elections in eight week’s time go back to working quietly together for the benefit of all the community. In the meantime, lets hope for sunshine and that  it will be another great family day, and I wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s Day Yours sincerely, Councillor Cadogan Enright, Down District Green Party.]]>