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Sinn Féin Reply Over Flags Row At St Patrick's Parade
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FOLLOWING the difficulties and discussions that emerged prior to the St Patrick’s Festival Parade over the legitimacy of Sinn Féin Down District Councillor Eamonn Mac Con Midhe flying the Irish flag in the parade, Sinn Fein Council Group Leader Mickey Coogan has released a letter explaining his party’s position on the issue which led to Unionists withdrawing from the parade on St Patrick’s Day after last minute discussions to resolve the issue failed.

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A chara,

As Sinn Féin’s Group Leader on Down Council, I am writing to clarify our position in relation to the display of the Irish National flag during the Councils St Patrick’s Day parade.

We first indicated that we intended to carry the Tricolour in the parade several weeks ago, following a debate about the continued use of the St Patrick’s flag in the Council run event. A few years ago, Down Council formed a Good Relations to look at ways of resolving contentious issues around monuments, flags and emblems and during the debate about flags, another party proposed that we no longer use the St Patrick’s flag as it was representative of the British Union flag and could not be accepted as neutral.

The issue was raised at a series of meetings and it was agreed by all political parties to use the Council flag only. There was also the suggestion of designing a new flag which would replicate Tourist Board signage and capitalise on their marketing of the St Patrick’s Trail and other signature projects. This idea was opposed by Unionists who felt it was a waste of money (despite not costing the Council anything) and that we should continue to use the existing Council flag.

Down District Council Sinn Féin Councillors pictured gathering behind the Irish flag as the St Patrick's Day Parade starts in Downpatrick.

The Council officer who oversaw this committee informed Councillors that the St Patrick’s flag would not be used this year and that instruction had already been sent round the organisation. As word of this leaked, the local press contacted the Chairperson and Chief Executive of Council to confirm that the flag would no longer be used and were told that this was not the case.

In our view both Councillor Eamonn O’Neill and John Dumigan, The Council CEO, should have referred to the Chair of the Good Relations Forum, Cadogan Enright and should not have overruled the decision of the forum without first consulting the members’ of the forum.

Sinn Fein raised the matter at Council and in the Policy and Resources Committee and on both occasions the other parties refused to adhere to their earlier positions. Councillor Mac Con Midhe stated that if the Union flag was still to be represented in the parade through the flying of the St Patrick’s flag then it was only fair that the Tricolour be displayed also.

Councillor Mac Con Midhe was interviewed by the local and national media and we are considering going to the Press Association as we are unhappy at the way his comments were reported. A number of remarks given to the print media were misquoted and others taken completely out of context.

In the days following the publication of the interview a number of local politicians from both a unionist and nationalist background started spreading outlandish rumours that there would be trouble at the parade and that Sinn Féin was intent on handing out thousands of flags – claims were even made that we intended bringing in thousands of Republicans from west Belfast to march in the event.

The people who spread these unfounded rumours, more than anyone else, should be ashamed of their actions. They contacted the parents of school children who were to take part in the parade and created fear and uncertainty so that parents had no choice but to pull their children out of the St Patrick’s Day event.

A large crowd attended the St Patrick's parade in Downpatrick and a few Irish flags made a prescence.

These elected representatives were prepared to play on the fears of children in order to score a few cheap political points Some of the parents who were approached by local councillors have contacted me directly and expressed their disgust at what happened.

In the run up to the parade myself and other Sinn Féin elected councillors clarified our position on the flying of the flag on numerous occasions but only on the live shows were we able to make our point as the media had joined the ranks of unscrupulous politicians who wished to sensationalise the story.

On the eve of the parade I held a series of meetings with the PSNI, Chair and Chief Executive of Council, Political Group Leaders and the Council officer who manages the organisation of the parade. These meetings were arranged in an attempt to manage a negative media storm that was threatening to ruin the parade. The Group Leaders meeting was confidential but unfortunately this trust has already been broken. I have no intention of going in to the detail of the meeting but there were, I believed, genuine attempts to find an agreed way forward, unfortunately one party could not agree.

If the flag was carried in order to antagonise, intimidate or isolate anyone, or in order to claim ownership of the parade, neither I nor my party colleagues would have anything to do with it. In the past I have personally removed the Irish tri-colour from public places when it has been used to antagonise members’ of the Unionist community and would do so again. I have no interest in sectarianism or political bullying and I can stand over my actions past and present.

The local press reported we did not care if unionists attended the parade. Nothing could be further from the truth. St Patrick belongs to everyone on the island of Ireland and is part of our shared culture. Sinn Féin has no desire to claim Patrick or to change the cross community ethos of the parade in Downpatrick into a solely nationalist occasion.

Indeed, if this were the case it would contradict everything we have been trying to do, in promoting our shared culture throughout this island.

I’m delighted that the scaremongers didn’t succeed in ruining the parade and would like to congratulate all those who participated in the event. I know the hard work that groups and individuals put in to their floats and am relieved that they ignored the sensationalist scare tactics of a media hungry for a story and opportunist politicians whose unethical actions are nothing short of scandalous.

Is mise le meas,

Councillor Mickey Coogan

(Sinn Féin Down Council Group Leader).