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Long hall Meet the flag protester who has spent every Saturday for the past eight years outside Belfast City Hall

Ann is one of a small group of protesters who hold a weekly picket against the decision to remove the Union flag from flying all year on top of the famous city centre building

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Ann Dickson at Belast City Hall last Saturday

Ann Dickson at Belast City Hall last Saturday

Ann Dickson at Belast City Hall last Saturday

Pensioner Ann Dickson is hard to miss.

Bedecked from head to toe in Union flags, she’s as defiant as she is colourful.

And every single Saturday for the last eight years you’ll find her at the same spot – outside Belfast City Hall.

Ann – who is officially Orangewoman of the Year – is one of a small group of protesters who hold a weekly picket against the decision to remove the Union flag from flying all year on top of the famous city centre building.

The recent violence on Belfast’s streets have brought forth memories of the disorder which followed the ‘flag protests’ which began in 2012.

Ann and husband Billy – a former Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast – have maintained their protest since that time, and even throughout the pandemic, missing just two weeks – to go on a holiday.

Ann this week told the Sunday World bout her loyal determination to see the Union flag fly from City Hall once again.

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Ann’s husband Billy – a former Deputy Lord Mayor – at the protest last Saturday

Ann’s husband Billy – a former Deputy Lord Mayor – at the protest last Saturday

Ann’s husband Billy – a former Deputy Lord Mayor – at the protest last Saturday

 

Ann, a proud member of South Belfast LOL 17, of which she is a secretary, explained: “I’m among the few who’ve been at City Hall every week since the flag protests began. Me and my husband have stood there through snow, rain and even on days when we were sliding on slabs of ice.

“There is a nice group of people who support our will to have the flag reinstated, and there is great camaraderie between us.

“We’ve made some great friends, people that we would never have met otherwise; some very nice Christian people. On many occasions we’ve asked each other to pray for each other and to pray for friends our friends.”

Speaking of the violence at the flag protests in late 2012 and early 2013, Ann said the violence solved nothing, and that she and her fellow protesters have silently shown over the best part of a decade that peace and persistence are the way forward.

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“Some people think what we do is all about ‘kick the Pope’ and a lot of the coverage of the flag protests has been so negative, but we’re not about that at all. All we want is for the flag of our country to be flown from City Hall as it was for many years before, when not a word was said about it. That’s our only aim.”

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The protest takes place every week

The protest takes place every week

The protest takes place every week

 

On the recent diktat from Westminster stating that all UK government buildings should fly the Union flag, the 73-year-old said she and her husband feel the momentum behind the move will be skewed when it comes to Northern Ireland.

She said: “Unlike those at the Bobby Storey funeral, we actually have to adhere to the law. The rules are always different when it comes to Northern Ireland.

“I don’t think the new rule on the flag is going to apply here, but there’s a petition going in support of the move.

“If the Union flag flies in the rest of the United Kingdom, then it should be flying here.

“It flew from City Hall for years and there wasn’t a word said about it, but when Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party got together, suddenly it became an issue and they only wanted it to be flying on statutory days, which is about 15 days of the year.”

Ann also explained how the protest has continued through the pandemic. Like every other section of society, the protesters had to scale back their presence due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“At one stage we were only allowed three people there, all socially distancing. Now we can have two families from two different households, up to 10 people.

“We have a rota, so everybody that’s been involved over the years has the chance to get down. We try to work it so that we can get different people down every week, but Billy and I are there every week ourselves.

“We put our flag up, and if there are too many people there we just take a nice stroll around the City Hall and come back, take the flag down and sing God Save the Queen with the others, and then we go home. We only go for about 15 minutes each week at the moment, instead of the full hour we’d stay there for before the pandemic.

“It’s a social thing for us as well. Again, before the pandemic, there would be a wee group of us who would go up to CastleCourt for a bite of lunch and a cup of tea.

“We’ve even been on a few outings together, and some of the friends I met at City Hall actually joined our Orange Lodge, South Belfast Women’s LOL 17, on Sandy Row.”

And although she’s Orangewoman of the Year, she’s been able held on to the title for almost two years – because of the pandemic!

“The Orange Order do an Orangeman of the Year award, and they do an Orangewoman of the Year. Billy was runner-up Orangeman of the Year at one stage for his community work, but a lad down south won it.

“Before the pandemic started, I was awarded Orangewoman of the Year, so I’ve been holding onto the award for two years because they haven’t been able to hold the awards again. I think I hold the record for the longest-running holder of the award!”

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Protesters want the Union flag flown every day from City Hall

Protesters want the Union flag flown every day from City Hall

Protesters want the Union flag flown every day from City Hall

 

While Ann and her friends face enough challenges in dealing with pandemic issues coupled with the weather, she says the protesters do receive the odd bit of abuse, but that the vast majority of people are reasonable and friendly.

“We’ve had a few comments now and again. It’s actually quite rare but sometimes you will maybe get somebody driving by in a car who will roll down the window and give you the fingers or curse at you.

“Before the pandemic, the vast majority of people that approached us were tourists. For example, we would have a lot of Chinese people stopping by to talk to us who’d pose and get their photos taken with us with the flag in the background, people from places like Australia – all over the world.

“They always ask us why we’re there and what it’s all about, and when we tell them they love getting their picture with us.

“They find it absolutely bizarre that the flag of our country isn’t allowed to be flown from a government building, especially the Americans, who have the American flag flying from their houses, on every building and in every school.

“They find it as strange as we do that the same people who have a problem with the Union flag flying at City Hall don’t have any problem whatsoever with the Queen’s currency in their back pocket.”

With the recent political and social upheaval in Northern Ireland, Ann reiterated her view that any protest should always remain peaceful.

“We just feel like there’s an onslaught of people chipping away at everything that is British bit by bit.

“When you look at last week, and you look at the trouble and the young people that have been caught up in, none of us want that. We want people to protest, but peacefully.”

 

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