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Belfast St. Patrick’s fest founders over flag flap

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Belfast City Council has withdrawn £50,000 funding for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Carnival, dashing hopes for a cross-community festival.

Legal action is being considered by the parade organizers, who have already spent funds in anticipation of the promised support from Belfast City Council. The council does not normally demand cross-community support for events it funds.

Lord Mayor David Alderdice said the decision to withdraw funding was a "bitter disappointment" to many people, but loyalist councilors accused nationalists of trying to hijack the festival for political purposes.

Last year the city center saw its first-ever St. Patrick’s Day parade, organized by the West Belfast Festival, with thousands of children and their parents thronging the streets outside city hall.

The parade was a resounding success. The turnout surprised even the organizers, but loyalists were furious that the tri-color was being flown and that political groups, such as the ex-prisoners’ group Saoirse, were involved.

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TV cameras were present to observe PUP councilor Billy Hutchinson angrily berating a bemused Gerry Adams, who had emerged from a meeting at City Hall in the middle of the parade and didn’t realize what the fuss was about.

The parade organizers, however, took on board unionist criticisms and immediately began planning for 1999 by setting up a cross-community panel to draw up rules for this year’s parade.

The panel consisted of equal numbers of representatives from loyalist and republican areas, including members of the Ulster Scots Association, one of whose members was joint chair of the group.

Over months, it drew up plans for a neutral festival flag, which was colored blue with words in English, Irish, Ulster Scots and Chinese (to recognize the largest ethnic minority in the city).

This flag was to be promoted as the mascot of a four-day-long carnival, being given out free on the day itself to encourage people to leave other, more divisive, emblems at home.

It was considered, however, impractical to ban any other flag, either British or Irish, although militaristic-style bands and uniforms, along with political party slogans, were not to be allowed on the route of the March 17 parade.

The committee agreed these guidelines, and all was going swimmingly until an intervention from unionist councilors, who demanded the tri-color be banned and the only flag permitted, other than the neutral one, be the flag of St. Patrick, which for centuries was associated with the pro-British aristocracy in Ireland and was carried by the Blue Shirts when they went to fight for Franco in Spain.

The nationalist members of the committee considered it both impractical to ban anyone carrying a tri-color from the parade, or to take their flags off them as they arrived.

Unionist councilors also wanted the day of the parade to be changed from March 17 to the following Saturday. They said Protestant schoolchildren would find it easier to attend on a Saturday.

The organizers said live link-ups with Dublin and other cities around the world could only take place on March 17.

Since neither side would back down, last week’s full city council meeting voted to withdraw all funding from the four-day Carnival, although thousands of posters and flags have already been printed and international acts contracted.

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