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Tackle educational underachievement, high unemployment and social deprivation before flags

The flying of flags takes on an unjustified significance in Northern Ireland. Vastly more important is tackling educational underachievement, high unemployment and social deprivation, says Alex Kane

In December 2014 the Stormont House Agreement committed the parties to establish a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, with a remit to "focus on flags and emblems and, as required, broader issues of identity, culture and tradition, and seek to identify maximum consensus on their application".

 It was due to have been up and running last June and to have had a mid-term report drafted before the Assembly shutdown in March for May's election.

But, like so many other commitments, it fell foul of the stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP on welfare reform and had to wait until November's Fresh Start deal to be nudged back into life again.

So, at some point in the next couple of weeks the names of the 15 members (seven nominated by the five main parties and eight appointed after an application and sifting process) will be announced, and the Commission should hold its first meeting next month.

The DUP and Sinn Fein will appoint two members each, with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance having one.

Who they appoint will be up to them, so no particular expertise or recruitment process will be required, although it must be assumed that their appointees will be supportive of the respective parties and broadly sympathetic to their existing policy on the issues to be discussed.

The other eight members will be appointed from a "range of sectors across the community. Sectors could include, but are not limited to, academia, community, churches, local government, business, tourism, trade unions, minority ethnic groups and mediation". Since these eight have to be signed off by the First and Deputy First Minister, they will, like the vast majority of the members of these sorts of bodies, be regarded already as a "safe pair of hands" and certainly not the sort of people who would rock boats, upset applecarts or suggest anything too radical.

But change doesn't come from the same-old same-old, and nor does it come from some sort of vetted list who make up Northern Ireland's version of the great and the good. It's not just the political parties who lack adventurous thinking when it comes to creating a new era Northern Ireland.

There will be a commitment of three days (six half-days) per month for 18 months, although additional days may be agreed if necessary, as well as another few months towards the end.

Remuneration will be a per diem rate of £300 plus travel and subsistence.

The question is: can this Commission succeed when so many other efforts to resolve these issues have failed?

There already is a Flags Protocol for Northern Ireland, although you could be forgiven for not realising it because it seems to be ignored most of the time.

Polling research carried out for a report (itself released yesterday) for the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University indicated that 70% of respondents across Northern Ireland's 11 council areas supported more regulation of flags in public spaces. Although only a slim majority (53%) supported the flying of flags on council buildings on 18 designated days.

Yet, like so many other issues, opinion polls don't tell the real story. Studies going back three decades suggest massive support for integrated education, yet it doesn't exist as a formal Executive policy.

Poll after poll suggests that there is growing support for new, or middle-ground, parties, yet Alliance is still in single figures and new parties struggle.

In other words, while it is clear that people like the idea of Northern Ireland being seen to move on from a divisive, insular past, they are not quite so keen to do what is required to make that movement possible.

The real problem with flags, identity, culture and tradition here is that it's about separate and competing flags, identities, cultures and traditions. So it isn't about creating a Northern Ireland at peace with itself and sharing a common vision and agenda: rather, it's about ensuring that each community feels that its own symbols, benchmarks, touchstones and lines-in-the-sand have been recognised and protected.

Yet, in doing that the Commission would be merely cementing or even adding to the existing problems.

And while it's true that there is another bloc in Northern Ireland who can't understand why such a fuss is made about flags, parades, traditions, kerb-painting and murals, it isn't true that it has its own common identity.

For it, too, will have its own preference when it comes to the constitutional question (how it would vote in a border poll) and it will want that preference protected through political institutions and legislative changes.

Flags, identity, culture and tradition do matter to this bloc, albeit not in the same in-your-face way that it matters to others.

My best guess at what will happen, therefore, is that the Commission will produce a report in about two years' time which, on the surface, makes sense, but which is so heavily steered towards some sort of mythical wouldn't-it-be-great-if-it-was-like-this-all-the-time world that it will be ripped to shreds within days by the very people to whom flags, identity and culture matter most.

For these people it isn't about balancing identities, or some sort of parity process; it's about ensuring that they have the upper hand over the other side.

And because the various unionist/loyalist parties and Sinn Fein/SDLP are always happy to stir up this particular electoral base - or, at the very least, say nothing to provoke it - you can be pretty sure that they will distance themselves from the "difficult, unacceptable" parts of any report.

What I'd like to see is some brutal honesty in the report. Put the blame for the ongoing problem where the blame deserves to be put: with the political parties who patronise and pamper these groups and self-styled 'communities', rather than help them shift their priorities and focus to the much more important issues of educational underachievement, high unemployment, poor housing, social deprivation, alienation, non-voting and criminality.

These people are not facing an identity crisis because of who they are: they are facing it because the political mainstream has been letting them down for decades and treating them like social pariahs.

And some of their own self-appointed community spokespeople have been deliberately compliant in this process of social/political/electoral alienation.

The Commission will solve nothing by trying to agree on a policy of mutual respect for flags and traditions. It needs, first, to address the much deeper problem of why very particular groups/communities in Northern Ireland believe that flags are more important than decent jobs, good housing, well-funded schools and the end of interfaces and long summers of stand-offs.

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