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Just who is in tune with new, highly elite band?

Darach MacDonald hails from a Catholic nationalist background, is the author of a bestselling book about Orange bands and holds a PhD in the subject. So, the perfect person to sit on the new Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition then? Think again...

Published 12/04/2016

Issues surrounding band parades, flags, identity, culture and tradition will all be examined by the new commission
Issues surrounding band parades, flags, identity, culture and tradition will all be examined by the new commission
Issues surrounding band parades, flags, identity, culture and tradition will all be examined by the new commission

Every day I await news of who has been appointed to the new Northern Ireland Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. The only thing I know for certain is that I won't be among them.

I was informed on February 19 that my application had been rejected because I did not "provide sufficient depth and breadth" on four of the five essential criteria.

So, I'm not on the shortlist that has been sent to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minster (OFMDFM).

Eight of those names will be appointed as non-political members to the 13-person commission.

Originally unveiled in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, the commission was to have been up and running by June 2015, with the task of providing "a forum of individuals to take forward a programme of work to include:

• Scoping the range, extent and nature of issues relating to flags, identity, culture and tradition.

• Mapping the benefits and opportunities in terms of flags and related issues, whilst also highlighting where challenges remain.

• Producing a report and recommendations on the way forward".

I thought I might have something worthwhile to contribute, so when applications were finally invited last December, with a deadline of January 17, I put myself forward.

Aware that the urgency of tackling these issues meant there would not be interviews, I read the guidance booklet closely and answered the questions carefully over several days.

Until February 19 I was sure I was in with a chance. So, I queried my summary exclusion and was promised a response within "five working days".

I waited more than five working weeks. Then, on March 30, I contacted the "resourcing manager" at HRConnect, asking for her promised feedback. By return email I got a two-sentence response from the selection panel. It said, more or less, that I hadn't filled in the application form correctly.

"The candidate did not address all elements of essential criteria 2, 3, 4 and 5 as set out in the detail in the application form. The candidate relied too heavily on a list of activities, rather than illustrating how the required criteria were met by their experience."

Now, I can't wait to see who did fill in the form to the satisfaction of this panel of public sector recruiters and what they will bring to the issues which are at the core of all our unresolved differences.

Since I was deemed to have met the first selection criterion - knowledge and expertise in the area of flags, identity, culture and tradition - I presume the shortlisted candidates are equally qualified. For my part, I was recently awarded a PhD by Ulster University for my research on loyalist marching bands, identity, culture, tradition and trauma.

The second criterion was "judgment and creative thinking", on which candidates should "demonstrate an ability to tackle and resolve difficult and complex problems or challenges".

I responded that, in a journalism career of almost four decades here and in Canada, I tackled and help to resolve by research, analysis and elucidation such problems as the introduction of EU farm quotas, Quebec separatism, the Northern Ireland conflict, shared policing structures, not to mention a host of technological and cultural problems and challenges within the newspaper industry itself. Obviously, the other candidates did more.

The third criterion for shortlisting was "strategic thinking and planning". My inadequate response was in outlining how, as editor, I had changed the traditional editorial stance of a well-established nationalist group of local newspapers in Northern Ireland to reflect the post-Good Friday Agreement shared community.

I explained how I did so by careful planning, leadership and personal resolve to shift news, sport and features coverage to reflect all sectors of the community, targeted hiring and the introduction of new editorial initiatives. This was recognised in steadily growing circulation during my tenure as editor and four Weekly Newspaper of the Year awards. The selection experts were not impressed.

The next criterion on which I came up short was "experience of stakeholder engagement", on which I outlined how I come from a Catholic nationalist background with a lifelong and passionate involvement in Gaelic games, the Irish language and traditional music. Yet I had spent the past seven years exploring and living in a loyalist community, attending band parades and other Protestant cultural events and writing a bestselling book of my experiences, Blood & Thunder: Inside An Ulster Protestant Band, before completing a doctoral degree on my original research.

I also explained how my other books include a 1998 novel, The Sons Of Levi, telling the story of Ulster Protestants excluded from the six counties; a detailed account of the beleaguered nationalist community of south Armagh, The Chosen Fews (2000); and, most recently, as a co-author of a book, To Tell You The Truth, recounting the stories of people who have lived with deep trauma from the loss of loved ones during the Troubles.

The final criterion on which I was deemed unworthy of inclusion on the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was "team work". I explained how I had survived and thrived during a lengthy career in a field of work rooted in team work and co-operation.

I recounted my progression through news organisations in Ireland and Canada, where I adapted to new colleagues, cultural norms, work practices and corporate structures and was rewarded by promotion every time. Clearly, however, I'm not enough of a team player for HRConnect.

Obviously, it is difficult to decide on eight non-political commissioners from all those who impressed the HRConnect panel sufficiently to be shortlisted for OFMDFM. How else could it explain that it is already one month past the scheduled "preferred starting date" in March?

Then again, the commission had an original starting date of June 2015, with completion of the report within 18 months (December 2016). That deadline is approaching fast.

So, I now await with bated breath for news of the appointments. But I don't think I can hold my breath that long.

Darach MacDonald's Blood & Thunder: Inside An Ulster Protestant Band is published by The Mercier Press

Belfast Telegraph

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