PROGRESSIVE Unionist Party representative Phil Hamilton has given an assurance that the Ulster Volunteer Force and Young Citizen Volunteers flags erected around the borough in recent days will be taken down by the end of July.
The Rathcoole community worker was responding to criticism from Glengormley residents who have hit out the erection of UVF and YCV flags around the town ahead of this summer’s marching season.
Several local householders contacted the Times last Tuesday evening (June 19) claiming that the flags represent “paramilitary organisations” and do nothing to promote the area as a shared space.
“YCV flags are paramilitary and are illegal and should not be flown anywhere,” one angry resident said.
However, despite the YCV and UVF names having been used by murderous loyalist paramilitaries over the past few decades, Mr Hamilton insists that the flags erected in the town are not illegal and commemorate the soldiers from all over Ireland who fought so gallantly during the First World War.
Responding to the criticism from local residents, he urged everyone in the borough to “look into the historic facts behind the flags.”
“These flags are historic flags and do not represent any paramilitary organisation,” he told the Times. “I am willing to sit down with anyone to explain the history behind these flags and discuss this issue.”
Mr Hamilton, an active member of the Rathcoole Friends of the Somme group, added: “The purple 36th Ulster Division flag is clearly marked and dated and commemorates the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the early formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It also recognises the sacrifices of the men from all over Ireland, Protestants and Catholics, who served during The Great War, particularly at the Battle of the Somme where so many lost their lives.
“This year is the 100th anniversary of the formation of the 14th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles - the Young Citizen Volunteers. The Battalion had Protestants and Catholics in its ranks fighting side by side and the YCV flag commemorates the sacrifices these men made. These flags certainly don’t represent any paramilitary organisation.”
Mr Hamilton said that following talks with various groups around the borough, a ‘Flags Protocol’ has been drawn up whereby groups have agreed to take flags down by the end of August. And he said that in “a courageous step towards better community relations”, those who erected the UVF and YCV flags would take them down by the end of July.
“Obviously we can’t be held responsible for every householder or individual who decides to put up a flag, but we are appealing to everyone who does put up a flag to take it down again by the end of August and not to let it get into a tattered state,” he added.
Welcoming the commitment to remove certain flags from Glengormley and other areas by the end of next month, Alliance Party alderman John Blair commented: “I am aware that efforts have been made to keep the numbers of flags at more reasonable levels than last year. It also appears that assurances have been given that certain flags, which have caused some objections, will be removed by the end of July. Community representatives involved in securing these assurances deserve the thanks of elected members and I am happy to do that as well as offer any assistance I can give to make this time of year more positive and progressive in the future.”
Meanwhile, political and community representatives in Ballyclare have been urged to work with the PSNI to ensure there is no repeat of the violence which flared in the town last July when police officers moved in to remove flags from outside the Catholic church on the Doagh Road.
It’s understood that the ‘Protocol’ agreed among local loyalist groups this year meant flags weren’t to be flown outside schools or places of worship. However, it seems some individuals have decided to ignore that agreement and a number of flags have again been erected on lampposts outside the Church of the Sacred Heart near the Grange Estate.
While the flags are unlikely to be forcibly removed, one local business owner said political and community leaders must do everything they possibly can to ensure there is no repeat of last summer’s public disorder.
“The last thing this town needs is a repeat of last year’s rioting,” he told the Times. “What happened last year was disgraceful - it portrayed the town in a really bad light. The politicians and police need to get together with these so-called loyalist community leaders to make sure local people don’t have to put up with the same chaos and thuggery on the streets again this summer.”