Craigavon Borough Council ended its final meeting on Monday with the prospect of a £50,000 surcharge over its 365-days policy of flying the Union Flag at the Civic Centre.
The 41-year history of the council climaxed with an ‘in-committee’ session when a 13-9 vote rejected legal advice to revert to the ‘designated days’ policy, which the council changed two months ago.
Sinn Fein had set the ball rolling with a solicitor’s ‘Letter Before Action’, calling on the council to reinstate the former ‘designated days’ policy, abandoned on January 19. It was written in the name of former SF council member Michael Tallon, a means of using the name of a private citizen in securing legal aid.
The letter, from Belfast solicitor Padraig O’Muirigh, is ‘pre-action protocol’ warning that the next step could be calling in the Equality Commission with a view to seeking a judicial review.
The council’s own solicitor – Arthur Cox of Belfast – confirmed, in a letter presented to the ‘in committee’ session, that Sinn Fein would complain to the Equality Commission; that it could lead to a judicial review; that an injunction would follow; and that Sinn Fein would seek costs.
The Cox letter goes on to say that the court is unlikely to dismiss the case, and that a possible surcharge would consist of the costs on both sides. It adds that the local government auditor – in assessing the possible surcharge - would take into account a number of issues.
Despite the pressure, the council voted along orange-green lines, to continue the 24/7 flying of the flag. And Sinn Fein is almost certain to move onto the next stage, and call in the Equality Commission.
The pre-action letter states the council had failed to take proper regard for the commission’s advice on the flying of the flag and to work for the elimination of religious/political discrimination.
A source within the meeting pointed out that Banbridge District Council – part of the ABC super council which comes into power on April 1 - flies the flag 24/7. But that was achieved after an equality assessment throughout the district gained overwhelming support. However, a Craigavon assessment showed the community was split up the middle.
The move has echoes of the St Peter’s affair in the late 1980s when Craigavon Borough Council refused to transfer an unused portion of land to the GAA club. It was appealed, a surcharge of £100,000 was imposed, and 12 members were suspended for five years.
The solicitors warn that the costs this time “may amount to somewhere in the region of £50,000”.