The British government has announced that it will be assuming powers to order Sinn Féin members of the Northern Ireland Executive to fly the Union Jack over their offices on specified days. A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair told The Irish Times that the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson would order the Union flag to be flown over headquarters and other official buildings where it has traditionally been flown.
The issue of flags and other symbols is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland. Republicans insist that the Irish tricolor be flown over all government buildings alongside the British flag as a sign of parity. Unionists reject the idea vehemently, seeing the tricolor as the flag of a foreign country.
“It’s a matter that needs to be resolved, given there are a number of flag-flying days coming up – for example. Remembrance Day,” he added.
Sinn Féin has responded by announcing that they would seek legal advice, calling Mandelson’s attempts to consult with local politicians on this issue “entirely bogus,” The Irish Times reported.
Sinn Féin’s chief whip Alex Maskey asserted that Mandelson had always intended to introduce the regulations as a way to appease the increasingly fractured Ulster Unionist Party. “Peter Mandelson has to get the message that nationalists are not second class citizens,” he pointed out. Meanwhile a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said later, “The regulations do not force any minister or any individual to comply with the regulations or to fly a flag over a building.” However, he also said that the flag would fly over the buildings housing the education and health departments, which are presided over Sinn Féin members Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brúin, who have stated that they want the tricolor to fly over their buildings. ♦