A meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s Regeneration and Community has discussed the continuing Purple Flag accreditation status for each town, and while the principle is broadly agreed, some members warned against complacency when it comes to public safety.

The Purple Flag is the ‘gold standard’ accreditation scheme that recognises towns and cities as safe, welcoming places for residents and visitors alike. Led by the Association of Town Centre Management (ATCM), with backing from government, police and businesses, the initiative supports local working partnerships striving to achieve excellence for their area.

Director of Community, Health and Leisure Robert Gibson requested members agree to the recommendation for continuing Purple Flag Accreditation for both Enniskillen and Omagh, detailing required renewal fees of £1,500, £750 for each town.

However, he also used the meeting to launch an attack on the local press accusing them of blowing incidents “out of recognition”.

Formally proposing, Councillor Errol Thompson (DUP) said: “It’s in our district’s interests we support these recommendations. It’s very important our two main towns are seen to be safe and highlighted to be safe.”

This was seconded by Councillor Anne-Marie Fitzgerald (SF) who said, “The Purple Flag has been hard fought by the council for a number of years, as well as other service users and it has a great effect on our social economy in the day time but most certainly at night, as we get a large number of people coming from other areas.”

However, while concurring with this Councillor Chris McCaffrey (SF) enquired what criteria is used to achieve Purple Flag accreditation. “I’m aware in both Enniskillen and Omagh there has been several incidents at night, when unfortunately, people end up getting attacked.

“It is worrying and I do understand the good work which is done with the community support sector, but I would query what criteria is used and if there’s anything to be done to improve safety in both towns. There have been great leaps and bounds, especially in Omagh since a number of years ago when there was a very unfortunate attack and Enniskillen has had its fair share as well.”

Mr Gibson advised, “The Purple Flag is really to do with night-time economy and the range of activities which are available, plus the inter-agency working between the council, the police, the providers of night-time economy and the community sector. Work is still ongoing.”

He told members of his attendance at a joint council meeting between police and the Department of Justice, where he made enquires around increasing public CCTV in both quality and provision.

However, Mr Gibson added, “The difficulty is, there are many nights when nobody is attacked and there is nothing happening that is very wrong. But if anything happens, it’s the first thing on the front page of the newspaper. That’s what people read unfortunately from outside the district when we want them to come.”

Recounting “very positive feedback” from a senior English police officer who holidayed in Enniskillen with his children, Mr Gibson said despite reading reports of attacks, it was found to be very safe.

Initially anxious he was coming to “the wild west”, it was contended the officer was so concerned he waited outside the establishment his children had visited, to bring them back to where they were staying.

Mr Gibson continued, “He (the officer) then said, ‘We have many more difficulties in inner city and inner town areas in England.”

He thought he “was coming to somewhere that was like the wild west” but in fact didn’t see anything bar one or two drunk people.

Mr Gibson proceeded to tell members, “Sometimes the press blow these incidents out of recognition and the Purple Flag is trying to say, ‘Please don’t believe everything you read in the paper. we are working together to provide a safe environment. We can’t stop everything when hormones and alcohol and anything else are involved and people want to prove a point, but we are fairly sure our towns are safe. I certainly would not be afraid to let my children out in either Enniskillen or Omagh.”

Councillor Josephine Deehan (Independent), remarked, “It is important Enniskillen and Omagh should retain Purple Flag status and it’s a small amount to pay.

“I’m inclined to agree though with Councillor McCaffrey that there is no room for complacency. Sadly and tragically in Omagh we had the deaths of two young people and the loss suffered by those families will be felt for many, many years to come. One death is one too many. But we’re not even talking about deaths; we’re talking about injuries and other sorts of assaults. There was a serious sexual assault on a young woman close to the town centre some months ago. All these are of concern.”

She continued, “As a parent and a public representative, I want to see our nightime economy thrive but I want to see our towns as safe as possible. This is something good we can do in getting Purple Flag status but it shouldn’t just be purely a symbol. We should be working very closely with all law enforcements agencies and the licenced premises to ensure the safety of all who use our nightime economies.”

Councillor John McCluskey (Independent) said he was fully in favour of the initiative, however having listed to Mr Gibson he felt, “I still haven’t grasped it in full. What is this Purple Flag? What does it contribute? What exactly is it?”

Mr Gibson drew comparison to a Blue Flag for a safe beach. “The Purple Flag is the equivalent of a Blue Flag saying this town offers a good nightime economy. The people of the town are working to make it a safe town. That’s why when we are audited for the Purple Flag, the PSNI, the council, the providers of hospitality and other activities are all involved in the interview procedures with these judges, who then take a decision to say that we have reached an accreditation of a safe place to come and enjoy a meal or a social activity. It’s really a stamp of good nightime economy that is safe.” Councillor McCluskey responded by enquiring, “So how does it contribute (against) violence on the street?” Mr Gibson replied, “The fact we are working together shows we are not taking things for granted and we are working in a co-operative way to ensure our towns are safe. It is a marketing tool to be able to say our town has a good nightime economy which is safe and that has been proven by an exterior guide who have given us Purple Flag status.”

Councillor Stephen McCann (SF) warned the concerns raised should be taken on board pointing out, “There was a time a number of years ago when the level of aggression in Omagh was quite severe and we did have the loss of a number of lives.

From that perspective I think it is important we do not become complacent. There has been a lot of good work to make sure we do build a safer community.”

Rounding off the discussion, Councillor Thompson said: “There has been a lot of debate about this and it’s shouldn’t have been the case. I well remember the two instances referred to, one in the early hours of the morning and one in daylight. That is what this is about. It’s partnership approach to make our towns safe, and to be seen to be safe. There should be no wild debate on it.”