Belfast Telegraph

UUP want to axe Stormont flags body that's run up £650k bill

By Staff Reporter

A Stormont body examining flags and identity that has cost nearly £650,000 since it was established in 2016 should be suspended until there is a minister it can report to, the Ulster Unionists have said.

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) has racked up a bill of £647,094, with almost half of that (£330,020) spent on members' expenses.

The 15-strong commission, set up in June 2016 as part of the Stormont House Agreement, includes seven members nominated by political parties.

The eight other members include academics, community workers, Orange Order representatives and business leaders.

The commission was supposed to report its findings after 18 months, but no date of publication has been set.

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie is the only elected representative on the commission. He is not paid for his work.

His party leader Robin Swann yesterday criticised the body's growing costs at a time when it does not have a minister to report to.

Mr Swann said that in January he wrote to Northern Ireland Civil Service head David Sterling to "express my concern that the FICT commission was running long over the time-limited period within which it was supposed to have completed its work, and that this would inevitably incur costs beyond what was initially envisaged".

He added: "The status of the commission's work and any final report in the absence of an Executive must also be considered. The FICT commission was formed with great expectations; it is an important commission with a difficult task made no easier by the lack of an Executive or any kind of political consensus since its collapse.

"In fact the UUP, through its representative on the commission, recommended that the commission be suspended until the Executive was reformed. Now the question being asked is will it now disappear into a political vacuum at a cost of nearly £650,000?

"I am concerned, and I think the public will rightly be concerned, that further costs are being incurred at a time when the commission does not even have an Executive to hand their final report to."

Five members of the commission have links to unionism, including former DUP Culture Minister Nelson McCausland.

Other members include an ex-Alliance Party special adviser, a former SDLP adviser and an ex-Sinn Fein councillor.

It is co-chaired by Queen's University academic Dr Dominic Bryan and community relations worker Neville Armstrong.

The Executive Office said the commission's work was "ongoing" and that it was examining "long-standing, complex and challenging areas in relation to the expression of national and cultural identity".

The DUP said it was "deeply disappointing that some of those who complain most loudly about flags continue to block devolution, meaning no ministers are in place to consider a report produced by the group".

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