7. Conclusions. (EQIA - The Flying of the Union Flag)
Schedule 9 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires that, in making any decision with respect to a policy, a public authority shall consider any EQIA and consultation carried out in relation to the policy (para. 9.2).
There is no strict definition of what “taking into account” entails. However, the Equality Commission guidance on how decisions should be recorded makes it clear that a public authority must be able to record the decision-making process (as well as the decision) and that the decision must be justified.
The guidance also advises that all available information should be combined in making the decision. This includes the information gathered during the research phase, the results of the consultation and the analysis of alternative policy options.
This information has been brought together in this report and the accompanying appendices in order to ensure that the Council is in a position to take account of all issues and relevant data when making a decision.
In any consultation, the number of people that have expressed a preference for a particular option cannot be ignored, but this information must also be considered in the context of all other relevant concerns, including the strength and depth of feeling expressed by those who have responded.
Equally, it is to be expected that those who took the time and trouble to respond to the consultation would be those with strong opinions on the subject, and they have made their views very clear. At the same time, the impact of the proposed policy on all those who engage with the Council or live within or visit the Borough should not be disregarded.
In relation to Section 75 consultations, the Equality Commission has made explicit in the past that an “EQIA should not be considered as a referendum whereby the views of consultees from a majority are counted as votes to decide the outcome.” Instead, all available quantitative and qualitative data should be interrogated in order to help reach a decision that aspires to be fair, reasonable and proportionate.
The following analysis of the key points arising from the EQIA and the consultation responses is provided to assist the Council in its decision making, but it is not exhaustive and is not offered as a substitute for the detailed information as presented in the report.
The surveys of both staff (n=177; 28.1 per cent of staff total) and the public (n=562; 0.4 per cent of the population of the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough) yielded healthy returns, and broadly representative samples, although in the public survey, there was a slightly higher response rate from people of no or other religion (20.3 per cent of survey responses compared to 6.2 per cent of the population) than would be predicted from the latest population survey of the Borough. There was also a lower response rate from people from a Roman Catholic background 24 per cent as opposed to 37 per cent in the population for CCG. In addition, the majority of respondents to this public survey were men (62.1 per cent).
With regard to the EQIA itself, the overwhelming majority of respondents to both surveys either agreed with or were neutral to the assessment of impact as outlined in the Draft EQIA Consultation Report.
Of the additional comments received regarding the EQIA (including the need for any additional data), very few related to the content of the EQIA process itself but instead reiterated stated positions regarding the proposed policy, or made reference to the inappropriate use of terminology (e.g. “chill factor”).
In relation to the EQIA process one respondent felt the consultation was poorly advertised and survey questions confusing. Others said they could not find or weren’t aware of the EQIA.
Only two substantive written responses were received (see above). The written response from the Equality Commission did highlight three issues relating to the EQIA process, and these have been noted and taken on board in the EQIA Final Decision Report.
First, the aim of the policy now clearly identifies the need to align the proposed policy not only with GB-wide Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport guidance but also local considerations, including relevant statutes and guidance, along with the views of all those affected (see p.3).
Second, the alternative policies and measures to mitigate (as originally only set out in the questionnaires accompanying the Draft EQIA Consultation Report but not in the report itself) are now also referenced in the relevant section in the body of the report (see p.14).
Third, monitoring arrangements for the proposed policy are set out clearly in section 10. below and are referenced earlier at page15 above where it is made clear that the policy will be reviewed independently from any changes attaching to the Council estate.
In summary, both surveys indicate a strong division of opinion with regard to the proposed policy.
Just over half of respondents to the public survey (51.2 per cent) felt that the Union flag should fly all year round on Council buildings, and half of (50.6 per cent) also supported the proposed policy with regard to seven locations.
Not surprisingly, and in common with previous surveys, community background emerged as a highly significant predictor of attitudes towards this issue, and the division of opinion by community background was stark.
While 83.3 per cent of Protestants who responded maintained that the Union flag should fly permanently (365 days) on Council buildings, only 10.4 per cent of those declaring themselves Roman Catholic felt likewise. Equally, only 7.6 per cent of those self-declaring as Protestant stated that the Union flag should never fly on Council buildings, in contrast with 58.5 per cent of Roman Catholics.
Specifically with regard to the proposed policy, 7 out of 10 (70.3 per cent) of respondents from a Protestant background either agreed or strongly agreed with the proposed policy in contrast with around only 1 in 10 respondents from a Roman Catholic background (9.2 per cent).
Among staff, levels of support for the flying of the Union flag on Council buildings were less strong than among the general public. Only around one third (32.8 per cent) of staff felt the flag should fly 365-days a year on Council buildings generally, and around a quarter of those who responded (26.0 per cent) felt it should never fly.
With regard to the specifics of the proposed policy, less than one third (31.1 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed with the proposal while nearly half (48.6 per cent) disagreed or strongly disagreed.
It was also evident that there is a degree of disquiet among staff as to how both the current and proposed policy may impact on the promotion of a good and harmonious working environment within the Council. 43.1 per cent of staff surveyed suggested that the current policy had had a negative impact, with nearly three-quarters of respondents from a Roman Catholic background (74.5 per cent) suggesting this was the case.
49.4 per cent of staff surveyed suggested that the proposed policy would have a negative impact, with nearly 87.5 per cent of Roman Catholic respondents suggesting this was the case.
Across the seven proposed locations, in both surveys it was noteworthy that there was little variation in response or discrimination between each venue, with the same view typically expressed for all seven.
Throughout both surveys, respondents were afforded the opportunity to provide additional comments or reasons for their choice.
Many of these comments were simply affirmations of personal opinions in relation to the flying of the Union flag, seeing it either as a legitimate expression of identity, or as an unwanted, and even intimidating, display of national allegiance with little personal resonance.
A number of respondents made reference to concern with how the proposed policy may impact on community relations within the Borough, along with suggesting opportunities to reach a compromise that may satisfy both communities.
These comments tended to be more common among staff who regarded the proposed policy as potentially divisive within the Council, where “shared” or “neutral” spaces were valued. There did appear to be a genuine concern that any change to the existing policy may harm what were seen as good relations within the Council, and this was seen as unfortunate but potentially avoidable if a compromise position could be reached.
The need for consistency across the Borough was also alluded to, while also recognising the need to create a welcoming environment for visitors and residents alike, and whose identities may be extremely diverse.
In reaching a decision in relation to the proposed policy, the consultation does not provide the Council with a clear mandate to move in a particular direction. While there is some support among both staff and the public for the proposal to fly the Union flag permanently at seven Council sites, equally there is opposition, and sentiment for and against runs high in both camps.
On the one hand there are those among both the public at large and staff who regard the flying of the Union flag permanently at seven locations as a proportionate and appropriate display of allegiance to the United Kingdom by the Council, and in line with guidance issued to GB authorities by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
On the other hand, there are those who regard any extension to the Council’s existing policy as perhaps “a step too far” and one that may raise concerns and tensions locally, while also moving the Council well beyond the guidance offered by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to local authorities on the flying of the Union flag in 2013.
This guidance makes explicit that while the flying of the Union flag at a Council’s civic headquarters may be appropriate, “the rationale for its display at every Council location, facility and leisure centre would be questionable.”
Although the Council is not advocating flying the Union flag permanently at every Council location, it has moved further beyond the parameters of this guidance in its current proposal, and the rationale offered, of simply following GB guidance, may not provide adequate cover given Northern Ireland’s unique legislative status.
The Commission goes on to state that any decision should reflect the Council’s legitimate policy aims and impacts." A significant minority of staff surveyed (48.6 per cent) have indicated opposition to the proposed policy and this finding should be given due regard in the Council’s further deliberations.
In finally reaching a decision, Section 75 considerations must be afforded due regard by the Council, alongside all other matters that are seen to be germane to the policy in question. The EQIA has made clear that there are a number of concerns and in particular relating to the promotion of good relations within the Council, but ultimately executive authority will rest within the Council Chamber.
 Practical Guidance on Equality Impact Assessment, ECNI 2004, p.45
 Practical Guidance on Equality Impact Assessment, ECNI 2004, p.45
 Advice on Flying the Union flag in Councils, www.equalityni.org/ECNI/media/ECNI/Publications/Employers%20and%20Service%20Providers/Public%20Authorities/AdviceflyingtheUnionflagincouncils2013.pdf?ext=.pdf