It was a night of high drama in Craigavon on Monday as a motion on controversial and divisive ‘Soldier F’ banners brought a split in Council chambers.
A motion to remove the banners, brought forward by Sinn Fein’s Liam Mackle, saw 38 councillors vote split 19-19 before Lord Mayor and SDLP councillor Mealla Campbell cast her vote in favour of their removal.
During a heated debate, there were accusations of “hypocrisy” and the motion “stinking of double standards”.
Councillor Mackle, addressing the chamber, said: “Council has made a great investment in the regeneration and reinvigoration of our town centres, and these banners, which have been erected, have been done so to cause divisions and we must not let them.
“Bloody Sunday and the shooting in Ballymurphy scarred the families of victims.
“The independent prosecution service is prosecuting one of the soldiers who was involved in this and it is only fair that soldier F is given a fair trial.
“However, the erection of these banners can only be seen as support for the alleged actions of this man.”
Councillor Mackle quoted David Cameron, who said: “Do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible.”
Party colleague, councillor Brona Haughey, who seconded the motion, stated that the banners were “off-putting, insulting and intimidating to families of victims.”
Independent Unionist councillor Paul Berry retorted: “Hypocrisy springs to mind. Anyone that has murdered is not above the law”, before he accused Sinn Fein of “demonising soldiers”.
“We currently have 100 illegal paramilitary statues and monuments; I do not hear Sinn Fein calling for the removal of these for the sake of unity,” councillor Berry added. “It stinks of double standards.
“If you remove those banners, there will be more banners and more division just because Sinn Fein has raised the tension and raised the bar.”
SDLP councillor Joe Nelson said: “Our party has never been a supporter of violence; we support the notion that these banners are only there to stir up tensions.
“It is stepped up a mark from flags and emblems of our background when it reminds people of all the hurt.”
DUP councillor Darryn Causby commented: “Provisional IRA caused more damage to the centres of our towns and cities than these flags or banners will ever do.”
He made reference to bombs which went off in Lurgan during the troubles and the costs associated with those.
“On a regular occurrence, the flags in Portadown are brought before this council, however, on my way to Daisy Hill Hospital today I passed quite a significant hunger striker memorials,” councillor Causby said.
“They [Sinn Fein] mention one specific banner; I am not going to let Sinn Fein write the script on what is divisive.
“I know there is a growth in tension coming up to the July holidays; it is my desire that we will have a peaceful summer.”
UUP councillor Glenn Barr, speaking specifically on the unnamed ‘Soldier F’, said: “This man is innocent until proven guilty; if people wish to show their support through erecting a banner they should be able to do so.”
SDLP councillor Thomas O’Hanlon added: “I have spoken to Unionists from Tandragee, Markethill and Armagh who are not getting themselves into the debate of ‘Soldier F’ but feel the banners are only bringing up the past.
“I have raised this issue with the Department of Infrastructure, and my concern is that statuary agencies will just pass it from one to the other.
“We must ask that those who are putting up these banners must desist.”
UUP councillor Julie Flaherty said the current issue “is a symptom of a greater problem where legacy issues were not dealt with in the past”.
“My father took a bullet in Lurgan Street for our town centres,” she commented.
Sinn Fein councillor Keith Haughian said the point is that it is against the law to put these banners in place through Roads NI Act.
Deputy Lord Mayor and DUP councillor Margaret Tinsley then asked that Sinn Fein condemn those who placed a bomb under a car three weeks ago.
Councillor O’Hanlon injected: “We all signed a pledge when we joined this council that any terrorism was wrong in the past, is wrong now, and will be wrong in the future.”
An amendment put forward by Alliance councillor Peter Lavery Peter’s called for the removal of all divisive banners, flags and emblems from street furniture as this issue was “symptomatic of a wider problem with flags and emblems in our community.”
Councillor Flaherty asked: “Who is going to decide what is divisive and what’s not divisive?”
Before voting on the original motion to have the banners removed, councillor Mackle commented: “They offer nothing to the community, they are not honouring the dead, they are insulting the dead.”
38 votes were cast with the chamber on a knife-edge at 19 votes to 19.
Lord Mayor Campbell chose to use her casting vote to support the motion which carried.
The Notice of Motion stated: “In recognition of this council’s efforts to encourage the regeneration of our town centres and our villages and mindful of the need for both to be places where everyone can feel welcome and where investment and tourism are promoted we call on those responsible for erecting divisive banners to remove them as a matter of urgency. This council will write to relevant agencies and the Police Service to urge them to remove such banners if those responsible do not.”