On January 6, 1987 Omagh District Council passed its own motion to end the flying of the union flag over buildings or property under its authority. Instead the council by a slim majority of 10-8 voted to fly a flag bearing the council crest.
The motion introduced by Mid Tyrone Sinn Féin Councillor Cormac McAleer and backed by party colleague Cllr Gerry McMenamin, passed despite the fierce opposition of the eight Unionist members of the council, who broke a long-standing boycott in 1987 to return to the chamber to take part in a passionate debate on the motion.
Described as a “butchers apron” by Cllr McAleer, he said the flag was, “a symbol of British domination, oppression and injustice for many Irish people down the centuries”, arguing that the Nationalist majority of the Omagh Council area did not recognise it as their flag and it would be wrong for the council to continue flying it.
Claiming that there would be no problem getting 27,000 signatures on a petition opposing the proposal, DUP Councillor Oliver Gibson, bearing an ‘Ulster Says No’ poster, said the motion was “just part of the whole physical programme to try to intimidate and eradicate the Protestant ethos”.
Official Unionist Councillor William Thompson accused Sinn Féin of hypocrisy, claiming that they were willing to enjoy the benefits of life under the Union flag.
SDLP Councillor Stephen McKenna said while he respected those who honoured the Union flag, too often the flag was treated as a party emblem and flown in a “triumphalist and provocative manner”.
Cllr David Aiken (DUP) appealed to councillors not to support “this grave insult to our flag and our Monarch”.
During the debate, Cllr Wilfred Breen (OUP) produced a small Union flag from his pocket and unfurled it to laughter across the chamber floor as he proceeded to deliver a lesson on the meaning of the flag.
He said like the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he felt the motion was a stepping-stone to a United Ireland. “The next step here will he to have the Irish tricolour flying from all public buildings,” he opined.
Bringing the debate to a close, Council Chairman Brian McGrath of the Irish Independence Party said, “By adopting this neutral stance we are not seen to be favouring any particular section of the community. The other alternative would be to fly our own specially designed flag if that is the wish of the council.”
Accordingly a recorded vote passed 10-8, with four votes from Sinn Féin, five from the SDLP and one from the IIP. Four votes against were recorded by each of the Unionist parties, the DUP and OUP. There was one abstention.