Union flag protesters mark eighth anniversary of dispute

A small number of protesters have marched to Belfast City Hall to mark the eighth anniversary of the union flag dispute.

The socially distanced group made their way from Sandy Row Orange Hall to the city centre, followed by police officers.

A large crowd is usually expected but because of Covid-19 restrictions on outdoor gatherings only about a dozen participated this year.

The parade did not involve any of the previous year’s bands.

Belfast City Council voted in December 2012 to limit the flying of the union flag to designated days, including the Queen’s birthday.

It sparked loyalist protests and violence outside the city hall and across Belfast for weeks.

Every Saturday, a small number of flag protesters take part in a demonstration outside the council building.

Former deputy lord mayor Billy Dickson, who organised Saturday’s protest, said the demonstration was in line with Covid-19 restrictions.

Speaking outside Belfast City Hall, he said: “This action by Belfast City Council was seen as the final straw in a long list of grievances felt by the loyalist people, who believe their British identity and culture was being eroded.

“Loyalist anger came to a boiling point. Many felt the need to do something, especially the distribution of 40,000 unionist leaflets delivered throughout the city by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), claiming the union flag was being ripped down.

“I know staff in the city hall and there’s no way they would rip the flag down. They were ordered to take it down nevertheless.”

He added: “It’s not surprising that serious violence erupted following the council’s decision, at the same time there was no political leadership, the flag protesters were left to carry on with their protests independently.

“The vast majority since then has been peaceful.”

The demonstrators, carrying union flags, also protested against the demolition of a bridge – said to be linked to the Battle of the Boyne – as part of Translink’s £208 million Belfast Transport Hub.

Mr Dickson called for a review of the plans, saying the crossing should be “protected” and claiming it is the only remaining landmark linking Belfast to the 17th century.

The old Saltwater Bridge near Sandy Row was reconstructed in the 1930s and named after the Battle of the Boyne.

Its origins date back 400 years, when it is believed King William of Orange crossed the bridge in 1690 on his way to the Boyne.

The demolition has been given the go-ahead by Stormont.

“We are concerned that previous calls for an urgent review from 2018 have apparently been ignored,” Mr Dickson added.

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