Will Christmas trees be allowed in Magherafelt in shared space plans?

The Union flag which sits in the Diamond roundabout in Magherafelt.
The Union flag which sits in the Diamond roundabout in Magherafelt.

THERE is growing unease amongst members of the Protestant community over the “unclear” future of the Union flag in Magherafelt town centre, according to a local rate payer.

The concerns centre upon state-of-the-art draft plans to make the town more ‘shared, neutral and friendly’ which are to be submitted to the Department of Social Development (DSD).

Councillors voted two weeks ago to submit the public realm strategy draft to the Department for consideration following work which began on developing the ‘masterplan’ in August 2011.

In May TUV leader Jim Allister called on Unionist politicians in the town to come forward to “relieve fears” that the flag and Orange Order were to go under the regenerative plans. The DUP said it was not aware of any such plans.

But queries at this month’s full council meeting over clarification on how long the Union flag has been flown in the town centre have heightened concerns among the unionist and loyalist communities in Magherafelt.

“To the Protestant community it looks as though the Union flag is going to be banished from the town centre with these plans,” said the local man, who did not want to be named.

“And what are the Unionist councillors in Magherafelt council doing about it? Nothing as far as I and many other Protestants can see.”

“If Sinn Fein and SDLP want to push this shared space agenda through where nothing is offensive to anyone, then we can forget about Christmas trees and any other type of Christmas decorations in the town.

“Also if the Orange Order arches and the Union flag are to go Protestants will also expect Sinn Fein and the SDLP to make moves on banning any Gaelic tops which glorify dead terrorists, from council property and facilities such as the new leisure centre.”

“This is exactly why majority of Protestants believe that Stormont isn’t working, because they believe that Sinn Fein is too smart for the DUP,” he said.

“Since the ceasefire came along in 1994, what has the Protestants gained? £40,000 for every Orange Hall.

“What have they lost? The UDR, the RUC, the reservists, good jobs, that is what they have lost. Now we might lose our British culture and identity from our own towns. What I want to know is what are the elected unionists doing about it?”

In his comments to the MAIL earlier this year, Mr Allister urged unionist politicians to make a stand over any such plans to remove the arch or flag, and accused Sinn Fein of attempting to “cleanse” Magherafelt.

Sinn Fein hit back at his comments with councillor Sean McPeake stating: “The facts of the matter are that presently Magherafelt town centre is anything but a shared space for nationalists with the flying of the union flag in The Diamond all the year round.”

Days later an online petition circulated on the Internet called: ‘Magherafelt Council UK: Stop all moves to remove British Flag from town center’ (Sic).

Over 350 signatures were added to the petition which stated it was “important to stop the threats to British culture in the UK.”

One petitioner wrote: “The ‘Union Jack’ is the official flag of our country and we are very proud to have the flag flying all year round and especially with this being the Queen’s Jubilee Year and also the Olympics. Furthermore this flag signifies so much history, celebrations and cultural ways which should not be taken away. Save the ‘Union Jack.’”

Public realm is defined as any publicly owned streets, pathways, rights of way, parks, publicly accessible open spaces and any public and civic building and facilities.

The Magherafekt plans, which show a regenerated and pedestrian friendly town centre, were on display in Meadowlane shopping centre back in March when members of the public were encouraged to have their say on the proposals.

The strategy focuses on Rainey Street, Queen Street, Market Street, The Diamond, Broad Street, Church Street, King Street and Churchwell Lane, as well as pedestrian linkages and parking both on street and in car parks. It will also consider street furniture and materials, signage and art work within the town centre.