4. Assessment of impacts, EQIA Proposed Policy on The Flying of the Union Flag
4. Assessment of impacts
In accordance with the EQIA process, having gathered information on the policy and those affected by it, the Council must then assess whether there is a differential impact on one or more of the equality groups, determine the extent of differential impact and whether that impact is adverse.
Differential impact suggests that a particular group has been affected differently by the policy (either favourably or unfavourably), while adverse impact is an indication that the effect is less favourable (i.e., negative) and is potentially unlawful.
In order to determine whether the policy has any adverse differential impact, it is necessary to consider the people affected by the policy, their needs and experiences and the equality categories to which they belong.
The following section summarises the assessment of impacts as set out in the draft EQIA report based on the evidence available at that time.
Groups affected by the proposed policy
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council understands from the research currently available that the display or non-display of flags is an issue that may primarily impact upon people in relation to their religious belief and/or political opinion.
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council is fully cognisant of the political realities in Northern Ireland and of the differing aspirations of the two main communities, including within the Borough itself. The Council therefore accepts that the issue of the display or non-display of flags at particular locations is one that impacts primarily upon people due to their political opinion. At the same time the Council accepts that political opinion in Northern Ireland is often closely associated with religious identity and that therefore the policy may impact on religious belief.
It is considered therefore that the policy may have significant impact with regard to the following categories under Section 75:
- Political opinion
- Religious belief
It is assumed for the purposes of this EQIA that the majority of Catholics in the borough are likely to be Nationalist and that the majority of Protestants are likely to be Unionist (this assumption being supported to a large degree by the parallel in religious belief and voting figures in local government elections). It is also recognised that the breakdown of the population by religious belief will vary across the borough.
The Council is not aware of any evidence which would support the existence of a significant differential impact on the following groups, and it is therefore considered that the policy has no discernible impact on the following categories under Section 75:
- Ethnic group/racial background
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Persons with/without a disability
- Persons with/without dependants
Nature of this impact
Adverse impact or the degree of adverse impact on people in relation to the display or non-display of flags is difficult to quantify. The impact appears to be one of perception as to whether a flag represents a cultural, political or historical aspect of life in Northern Ireland.
Consideration would have to be given to the possibility that the Council’s proposed position with regard to the display of flags may have a differential and potentially adverse impact on people in relation to whether they feel free to fully access the public services available to them in the Council buildings at particular localities as defined in the proposed policy.
More generally people may experience a “chill factor” in their dealings with Council or visits to the Council buildings concerned. This “chill factor” may not prevent people from physically entering a building or accessing a service but may detract from their ability to participate and benefit fully.
Consideration also needs to be given to the role of the Council as an employer. Causeway Coast and Glens Council in its Equal Opportunities Policy, in line with the Fair Employment Code of Practice, is committed to:
“Promoting a good and harmonious working environment where all men and women are treated with respect and dignity and in which no form of intimidation or harassment will be tolerated.”
Within its Policy and Procedure for Dealing with Harassment, the Council commits itself to providing equal opportunities and defines harassment, inter alia, as:
“visual displays of posters, graffiti, obscene gestures, flags, bunting or emblems or any other offensive material”
The Council recognises that some employees may experience a “chill factor” when working in a building/grounds displaying flags which would lead them to associate the building with a different political identity.
Impact of the proposed flags policy
It is recognised that a flags policy which includes the removal of flags connected with Unionism and/or Protestantism would minimise the adverse impact of the previous practice on Nationalists and/or Catholics. It does, however, on the same evidence possibly create an adverse impact on Unionists and/or Protestants who may regard the removal of longstanding flags as reflecting on a diminution of their culture and history. Similarly, the reverse position would apply.
The Equality Commission has commented on the issue of displays in the past. In 2002 Fermanagh District Council reviewed its policy on the flying of flags and asked the Equality Commission for their views. In a letter to the Chief Executive dated 12 March 2002, the Equality Commission stated:
“The Commission seeks to promote a spirit of inclusivity and mutual respect and urges the avoidance of contentious displays which act as a badge for community or political allegiance and promote division in the workplace. […] Where an employer is seeking to provide or maintain fair participation, or to ensure that all of its services are widely utilised by all sections of the community, the Commission recommends particular sensitivity concerning displays which are wholly or mainly associated with one section of the community.”
Given the breakdown by community background of the population within each of the four legacy councils that make up Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, it is likely that the local response to the flying of the Union flag on Council premises may vary considerably. Accordingly, this matter will be afforded due consideration in the EQIA final decision report, and respondents to the consultation questionnaire have an opportunity to consider the flying of the Union flag at each location separately.
 Practical Guidance on Equality Impact Assessment, Equality Commission for NI, 2004 (pp.22-23)