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25 January 2001 Edition

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Ante ups in Sinn Féin flag challenge

BY CAÍTLIN DOHERTY

The case brought by Sinn Féin on the issue of flags is set to heat up in the coming days.

On Monday, 22 January, a decision was deferred on whether Secretary of State Peter Mandelson should be called to court to be cross examined about his controversial edict on the flying of the Union flag on government buildings in the Six Counties.

The judge said the application was premature, following legal submissions about widening the scope of the case.

A lawyer acting on behalf of Sinn Féin Equality spokesperson, Assembly member Conor Murphy, had previously applied and obtained permission for a judicial review of the Flags Order, which says that the Union Flag should be flown over government departments on 17 specified days a year.

Sinn Féin's legal team has argued that there is evidence that the Flags Order was introduced by Mandelson after a secret deal with David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The deal was struck to help Trimble win over his party's ruling Ulster Unionist Council when it met to decide whether to re-enter the Executive with Sinn Féin ministers last May.

An affidavit has already been lodged on behalf of Mandelson, including a letter indicating that he had been approached by the UUP on the flags issue.

Sinn Féin is seeking the disclosure of further documents, however. ``There is no doubt that other documents apart from that single letter on this very important issue must exist'', said Conor Murphy. ``We are determined to get to the bottom of what Mandelson offered the UUP and what Trimble's party offered back.''

Murphy said this issue was of crucial importance at such a sensitive time for the peace process: ``The secret deals between the British government and David Trimble are at the heart of the underlying problems associated with Peter Mandelson repeatedly playing to the unionist agenda''.

The flags issue has also raised the crucial question of the power of democratically elected ministers, he said. ``It is my belief that Peter Mandelson's decision to usurp the power of locally elected ministers flies in the face of what was agreed on Good Friday. It ignores the equality provisions, human rights provisions and the case for parity of esteem enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.''

Conor Murphy also challenged the Assembly's position on flags, which stated it wanted to maintain a ``custom and traditional'' approach towards such symbols.
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