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"Flag" commission report does nothing in the face of crisis

This is in line with all the other aspects of Northern governance

9 December 2021

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT)
was originally set up in 2016

The long-delayed report into the North of Ireland's culture wars was published recently at a cost of almost £1million and after years of delay, proposing - nothing.

The commission discussed flying the British flag, flying the Irish flag or designing a new flag but came to no conclusion.

It said that bonfires were perfectly reasonable but possibly could be modified to meet health and safety concerns.

Public bodies could remove paramilitary murals where they contravene a set of guidelines, and an accredited arts training initiative would help communities erect "positive imagery".

The victims of the conflict could be remembered in "respectful and shared commemorative events."

As the commission recommended no action and as the Stormont executive has no action plan. The commission and its proposals are effectively dead in the water.

Widespread criticism focused on the lack of action, on the inclusion of political figures on the commission, on the long delay in publishing, the secret withholding of the report and the £800,000 cost.

The commission was announced as part of the Fresh Start Agreement in November 2015. It was a way of kicking the can down the road on major issues arising from loyalist revolts around flags and bonfires. In that it has been successful.

The overall response has been for civic society to shrug its shoulders at the lack of action and agreement and blame incompetence and corruption.

Some nationalists have chided the unionists for blocking measures that in practice amount to acceptance of their sectarianism and bigotry.

However, the real weakness of the commission lies at its core, in the idea that the conflict in Ireland was some sort of cultural conflict. That's not true and that means that every discussion, every initiative goes nowhere. The Government does not govern. It acts as a mechanism for including all the political currents and allowing each to share out patronage.

It's not only flags and emblems that see no action, itís the challenges of Brexit, the Covid pandemic, ongoing segregation in education and housing and many more issues. The administration staggers on, even though already passed issues such as Irish language rights and abortion rights are effectively sabotaged. The absence of a loyalist rebellion, threatened by the DUP, is only due to their widespread unpopularity. An election is looming in 2022, but unionist parties will not commit to respect the result if it leads to Sinn Féin emerging as the party with the most seats.

The cultural model on which the commission was based ensured its failure. It has many similarities to the government structure in Lebanon. As in Lebanon the structure was imposed by the imperialist power - in that case France.  The various political and religious groups were baked into the administration.  Little government took place and each faction dispensed patronage in a culture of corruption.  Even when the corruption led to the destruction of Beirut port and the collapse of the economy it has proved impossible to even investigate the causes of the tragedy.

The Northern administration is a miniature copy of a fundamentally sectarian system. There is crisis, but no revolt or collapse, because the middle classes are happy with sharing out resources and the union leaders practice a studied neutrality.

Where the Northern administration succeeds triumphantly is in diverting from the actual seat of government - the British state - and from the only real alternative - unity of working people to defend democracy and their class interests.

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