On 15th November 2021, the 38th anniversary of the illegal ‘unilateral declaration of independence (UDI)’ by the secessionist regime in the occupied area of Cyprus, a few individual Councillors raised the flag of the illegal and so-called “TRNC” outside Waltham Forest Town Hall. At the time, the National Federation of Cypriots in the UK issued a statement condemning the flag-raising, and the flag was swiftly taken down. A subsequent investigation by a Solicitor appointed by Waltham Forest’s Monitoring Officer found that the Councillor responsible, Nick Halebi, did not act in accordance with the London Borough of Waltham Forest Code of Conduct in organising the flag-raising. Since the local elections in May 2022, Mr Halebi is no longer a Councillor so further disciplinary action could not be taken against him.
Reactions to the flag-raising
The flag-raising incident caused significant upset and outrage amongst the UK Cypriot diaspora. Many UK Cypriots fled to Britain as refugees after Turkey’s illegal invasion of the northern third of Cyprus in 1974, so witnessing the secessionist flag being raised on a Council building was particularly hurtful and offensive.
The Federation immediately issued a statement condemning the flag-raising, describing it as “deplorable, insensitive and deeply provocative to Cypriots”. The statement also highlighted that the action contradicts the long-standing position of successive British Governments of non-recognition of the “TRNC”. The Federation went on to explain that the flag-raising undermines UN Security Council resolutions on the Cyprus issue including 541 (1983) and 550 (1984), and undermines prospects for reunification, by encouraging secessionists. The Federation submitted a formal complaint to the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The Solicitors Report found that 163 individuals also submitted complaints.
The flag-raising incident prompted rapid condemnation from local politicians. The Leader of Waltham Forest Council, Grace Williams, apologized for “the offence caused by the raising of the flag” and offered reassurance that it would not happen again. North London MP Theresa Villiers condemned the flag-raising and described it as “irresponsible and culturally insensitive”. Ms Villiers added, “hoisting this flag over a town hall in north London will have caused pain and distress to people who had to flee their homes as a result of the Turkish invasion.” Two of the three MPs for the Waltham Forest area, John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) and Stella Creasy (Walthamstow), also “condemned” the flag-raising describing it as a “seemingly calculated attempt to sow division and distress”.
Unfortunately, the local Waltham Forest Liberal Democrat Association criticised the response of Council Leader Grace Williams, which they described as “reactionary as well as inflammatory.” Following this intervention, the Federation and Anton Georgiou, a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Brent, responded by saying that the Waltham Forest Liberal Democrat Association statement is “extremely disappointing, unacceptable, and disregards international law”.
Following the incident and strong reactions, the Monitoring Officer of Waltham Forest Council appointed an independent solicitor to investigate the complaints and establish the facts of the situation. The investigation obtained evidence from Federation President Christos Karaolis, Waltham Forest Chief Executive Martin Esom, Mr Halebi, and an anonymous officer employed by Waltham Forest Council.
In his evidence, Mr Karaolis highlighted the large volume of correspondences he had received from UK Cypriots of all backgrounds expressing their opposition to the flag-raising. He also said that the vast majority of Cypriots want to see Cyprus reunified and that the “TRNC” flag is a secessionist symbol used for political means by groups who want to permanently partition Cyprus, something that has no basis in international law. Mr Karaolis pointed out that the UK does not recognise the “TRNC” and, as the penholder on Cyprus at the UN Security Council, has a specific, historical duty to uphold UN Security Council resolutions with one of the obligations being “not to facilitate, or in any way assist the aforesaid secessionist entity”.
By the time the solicitor’s investigation was concluded, Waltham Forest Council had entered pre-election period and the London Borough of Waltham Forest were unable to publish their report.
After the election period had passed, the Federation submitted a Freedom of Information request to Waltham Forest Council to obtain a copy of the Solicitors investigation. The report concluded that Mr Halebi “has failed to comply with the Code [of Conduct] in respect of his actions regarding the event at the town hall”, specifically paragraphs 3.1 f) and k).
Waltham Forest Code of Conduct 3.1 f) prevents councillors from using Waltham Forest resources for political purposes. The report concludes that Mr Halebi “knew exactly the political significance of what he was doing” and selected “a day which was bound to further provoke the emotions [15 November]”.
In relation to 3.1 k), the report finds that Mr Halebi did not “promote and support high standards of conduct when serving in their office”. It goes on to say that “he knowingly used LBWF’s resources for a purpose which was furthering his political agenda and which he must have known would have been contentious and controversial. He states that his aim was to promote community cohesion but his actions did not do that and in my view he was fully aware that the actions would be divisive. If he had truly intended to promote community cohesion he would have considered the interests of all communities. In my view his aim was not to promote cohesion but rather to further his own political agenda.”
Prior to the local elections on 5th May 2022, Mr Halebi had confirmed that he was not seeking re-election. Therefore, it was not possible for any action to be taken against Mr Halebi despite his breaches of the Code of Conduct.
“Report affirms the widespread condemnation of the flag-raising”
Responding to the release of the report, Mr Karaolis said, “on behalf of the UK Cypriot community I am still deeply upset that the flag-raising incident ever happened, however I welcome the swift action that was taken by Waltham Forest Council at the time. I also welcome the important investigation and report on the incident. The report affirms the condemnation from local politicians because Mr Halebi’s actions were clearly in breach of the Waltham Forest Code of Conduct, as well as international law and the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. I sincerely hope that Councillors in Waltham Forest and across the UK will respect the unequivocal conclusions of the report and learn lessons, so that this is not repeated in future.”
Image by Julian Osley / Walthamstow Town Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0