Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland faced down far right protesters last night as she defended the removal of football flags and other items left in memory of murdered soldier Lee Rigby at the site where he died.
She was joined by opposition leader Matt Hartley in condemning death threats made to her staff and councillors, with both politicians facing abuse from a small number of people in the public gallery.
The flags had become a familiar sight outside Elliston House in Woolwich after the 25-year-old was killed by two Islamist extremists in May 2013.
But local residents had become increasingly uncomfortable with the display while Greenwich Council had created two official memorials to Fusilier Rigby, one at St George’s Garrison Church on Woolwich and the other a book of condolence inside Woolwich Town Hall.
The flags were removed last week – with flowers left alone – but a council caretaker then received death threats after a video was posted online. Councillors have also been threatened.
There was tight security ahead of Wednesday night’s council meeting, with police and security posted on the town hall entrance and members of the public searched as they entered.
But about 10-15 people, some of whom had clearly been drinking, caused the meeting to be adjourned after shouting protests during a speech by Hyland defending the removal of the flags, as well as a response by Conservative leader Hartley supporting the Labour council’s actions.
Hyland said she would not tolerate “the disgusting behaviour of a tiny and un-British minority, who have threatened and endangered the lives of my staff and councillors”. (See video on the council website.)
“This is what has happened to the caretaker who was one of a team who cleared the Wellington Street site. Footage of his face posted online. Details of his children and his home address shared. Threats made to burn his home or even to kill him. Public safety and the rule of law itself are under threat.
“Caretakers and council workers roll up their sleeves and give their all for our area every day – just as our armed forces do each day for this great country.
“Those who threaten them, while they are going about their work as Fusilier Rigby was, have more in common with the monsters responsible for his murder than they do with the decent and right-thinking British majority.”
Police prepared for protest
While a BBC report says the meeting “was stormed” – the corporation did not have a reporter present – the protesters actually arrived just before the start of the meeting, which led some in the chamber to think trouble had been avoided.
But police followed them in and seemed well-prepared for the protest, and the demonstrators were removed during a short adjournment. Some chanted “Brexit, Brexit” before they were led out.
Hyland told the meeting: “Fusilier Rigby is never far from my own mind – as a patriot and as a proud Greenwich resident.
“Downstairs in the town hall we have a book of commemoration and a photograph of him on duty. I pass it every day, as I do the St George’s Garrison Church – where the permanent memorial in his honour sits in place, with the full support of his family and the Army.
“In the aftermath of his death and the other appalling incidents that we have faced up to in this borough, I still recall how we came together; how we united as an area. How we chose to go on protecting diverse and tolerant values; to tell the enemies of what we stood for that they were not welcome.
“I know everyone else around here feels the same. I know no one in this borough will ever forget Fusilier Rigby.”
She continued: “Our decision to remove the items left at Wellington Road came out of respect for this. The site had become a free-for-all. We wanted to clean it up to show respect for the disciplined, dignified and proud tradition, which he and others in the forces stand for.
“We listened to our communities and acted accordingly. Some may not be happy about that, but I maintain it was the right choice.
“Of course I understand that people want to show their respect for what Lee stood for”.
But one protester shouted: “Why does Stephen Lawrence get a plaque with a 24-hour taxpayer survey [sic] on it?”
They objected loudly when Hyland described them as “far right”, with one shouting: “We’re patriots! We stand for what our ancestors, what our grandads, our great-grandads fought for.”
Hyland was supported by opposition leader Hartley, who said: “I don’t think any resident of this borough will forget that day, nor any other member of our community killed out of prejudice.
“This council’s leader, its officers, and its chief executive have worked tirelessly to ensure the wishes of Lee Rigby’s family are respected, and they have had the full support of ourselves in the opposition.” (See video on the council website.)
He continued: “People have the right to protest… but they do not have the right to make vile threats and death threats on social media or anywhere else. This was an affront to the values that Lee Rigby and every other member of our armed forces represent.
“This council administration will have the full support of the opposition as we take a joint stand against those who seek to divide us, as we always have, and always will.”
Councillors from both sides of the chamber applauded Hartley, keeping up their applause to drown out continued abuse from the protesters. The meeting adjourned for a short break to eject the demonstrators.
With the Ministry of Defence declining to construct a memorial at Woolwich barracks, the question of how to remember Fusilier Rigby has been a tricky one for the council, which has had to balance the national significance of his murder – and pressure from the tabloid press – with the risk of attracting unwanted attention from extremists.
The memorial at St George’s Garrison Church commemorates Fusilier Rigby along with others who have died serving in the military.
But the continued existence of the flag shrine – which itself was a target for vandalism in 2017 – had been a headache for the council as well as those who lived close by.
The Sutton-based News Shopper, which has helped promote a fundraiser to keep the display in place, did not have a reporter present at the meeting last night.