The report on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, long in the waiting, was freed from its political limbo. It underwhelmed the public with its lack of punch. Although lengthy in its title, the commission was short in answers to the endemic sectarian issues that pollute our society and destabilise our politics.
The report was an academic’s bean-feast, which failed to live up to its promise of solutions to the ugly sectarianism that has been tolerated for far too long.
There was little need in the first place for any report from any commission on flags. The underlying reason that there was one was the outstanding failure by politicians to forthrightly address the issue of crude expressions of sectarianism in our streets and public places.
For decades, we have become inured to the multiplicity of paramilitary flags and other antagonistic loyalist, or republican, emblems on lamp-posts and other street furniture — not just at the Twelfth of July, but sometimes throughout the whole year.
In addition, society has had to endure paramilitary murals and memorials in order to appease paramilitary sensibilities.
These manifestations of crude sectarianism and paramilitary might are dispiriting 24 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Most of us simply thole these things in a spirit of tolerance. At this stage, many thought that those who did these things would become grown-up and give up displays of aggressive sectarianism.
There were other related, sectarian issues, including the more physically challenging issues of bonfires, that clash with the idea of a normalised, non-sectarian society, in which these things simply should not happen.
Nothing of substance is offered in this report. No mention, for instance, of a simple health and safety notice to be served by a local council regarding inappropriate pyres.
Indeed, bonfires are lamely accepted as “an important aspect of the culture, identity and tradition of communities” and “a legitimate form of celebration, or commemoration, provided they are compliant with the law.”
The genesis of the setting up of this grandly entitled commission and its report was the Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015, which was yet another attempt by the DUP and Sinn Fein to appear to create a more stable Assembly.
Predictably, Sinn Fein and the DUP could not reach agreement on these outstanding contentious issues. As a compromise — or maybe more accurately as a cop-out — they agreed to set up the commission, whose report was released after a delay of almost two years.
So, instead of honestly addressing this accumulated stockpile of toxic sectarian waste, these mutually antagonist parties, being incapable of resolving anything big, franchised out the consideration of these issues.
As Sinead McLaughlin, the SDLP MLA from Derry, said in response to the First and Deputy First Ministers’ failure to agree on what to do with the report’s recommendations, “These issues go to the very heart of divisions in our society and the failure to reconcile our people.”
Reconciliation is not in their political interest. Their primary interest is political survival.
Despite its considerable length, the report was simply a regurgitation of well-known problems, without agreed solutions. It was descriptive, not prescriptive.
The failure by the commission to agree an action plan to tackle the outstanding problems is not surprising, given the deliberate political balance built into the membership of the commission.
There were 15 members of the commission, chaired by an independent academic. Seven were from the political parties and eight were independent members.
It would have been much better for a completely independent, non-party political panel to have considered the problems. The inclusion of political representatives invited deadlock.
At the heart of all this is the unspoken, but glaring, failure of unionist politicians to challenge the persistent excesses of loyalists to indulge in openly provocative sectarian activity, such as bonfires and manic flag-flying.
There has been little or no attempt by unionist leaders to say to loyalists that this sort of behaviour is wrong.
By their crude excesses, they undermine the development of good relations and the building of peace and reconciliation within our community.
The problem of sectarianism of this type is not an exclusively loyalist, or Protestant one, but nonetheless, in truth, it largely a loyalist one.
It is fuelled by an alienated loyalist underclass that is defiantly entrenched and oblivious to the fact, that society has moved on. This, of course, suits Sinn Fein, for they happily thrive on a diet of sectarian grievance.
Unionist leaders have failed to challenge loyalists and, as a result, we, as a society, have to suffer their dismal antics that periodically plunge the whole place into crisis.
It isn’t a report that we need, but rather a commitment by unionist politicians to educate and to lead loyalists out of the sectarian laager in which they are trapped.