by Jamie Bryson
Unionist Voice can exclusively reveal recommendations from a leaked draft of the Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) commission report.
It can also be revealed that Sinn Fein representatives have demanded that the commission recommends that the Irish flag must be flown in parity with the Union flag on public buildings, or failing this that no flags should fly at all.
Sinn Fein have said they will NOT sign up to any document that recommends the flying of the union flag alone, for any period of time, on any public buildings.
It is important to note that Unionists on the commission have NOT signed up to any final agreement and the current recommendations are being driven strongly by Sinn Fein, the Alliance party and academics.
Within the overall report, which currently runs to 16 sections, there are recommendations for contentious issues such as flags and bonfires. These recommendations are contained within ‘Draft 2’ which has been under discussion for the past 8 weeks. Minor amendments to ‘Draft 2’ were initially to be re-written by the co-chair, academic Dominic Bryan, but it is understood that a civil servant will now take on this role.
The commission is due to meet again on the 22nd and 25th March and following these discussions a ‘Draft 3’ report is to be provided to commission members on or around the 16th April 2018.
Unionist Voice can reveal the following recommendations were contained within ‘Draft 2’ and are expected to remain in ‘Draft 3’:
The commission is set to recommend the following on bonfires;
- That the Northern Ireland Executive extends the provision of Article 10 of the Recreation and Youth Services (NI) Order 1986. This would enable land owners to “establish, maintain and manage facilities for recreational, social, physical and cultural activities”.
- That the Northern Ireland Executive makes ‘bonfire materials’ (dry wood only) exempt from being controlled waste within the Waste and Contaminated Land Order. Draft 2 states the following on this “A change in legislation would enable land owners to permit a bonfire on their land for such an occasion they would therefore be in a position to the set the criteria for such”. This proposal would effectively create a licensing scheme by the back door whereby bonfire builders would have to apply for permission, and land owners would set the criteria for how the bonfire should run. It would de-facto allow public land owners such as council and NIHE to eradicate aspects of bonfires they deem unacceptable. Sinn Fein’s Jim McVeigh previously stated that there should be no bonfires at all, that therefore provides an example of the ultimate trajectory of a ‘licensing scheme’ placed in the hands of councils or other public bodies.
- That the Northern Ireland Executive would agree to encourage statutory intervention in any bonfires that (a) risk life or property (b) gives rise to an offence of hate crime; or (c) Encourages support for proscribed organisations; or (d) Gives rise to anti-social behaviour. None of the aforementioned scenarios are clearly defined and therefore, for example, if someone hostile to bonfires decided that young people congregating constituted anti-social behaviour, or the erection of a particular flag was perceived to relate to a modern proscribed organisation, then this could trigger statutory intervention to shut the bonfire down.
- It is recommended that landowners would “robustly pursue incidents of illegal dumping of tyres, rubbish and fly tipping on bonfire sites”. This would quite possibly catch many genuine bonfire collectors and open up the door to criminalisation of young bonfire collectors who would only be permitted to collect dry wood, or else they would be open to prosecution.
- It is recommended that the Northern Ireland Executive may provide support in the form of “conferring powers on statutory bodies, where they do not already exist, to take proactive remedial steps at a bonfire site.” Again, this opens the door to further criminalisation of bonfire builders.
- It is recommended that the Northern Ireland Executive set statutory conditions for public landowners for permitting bonfires on their land. Among the recommended conditions are the following;(a) Collecting must only take place 6 weeks prior to the bonfire, (b) Only wood to be burned. No other material (c) NI Fire Service MUST be consulted and all bonfires must be at least a 1:5 ratio of the height of the bonfire to its proximity to any physical structure such as housing (d) The burning of any flag, emblem, election poster or any other item which could cause offence is not permitted and the landowner will enforce this.
On flags the commission is expected to recommend the following;
- A de-facto licensing scheme whereby those wishing to erect flags would be required to provide notification of their intention to erect flags on public property, and would only be permitted to do so for a period of ‘exemption’.
- A small change in legislation to allow flags to be lawfully erected for only a designated period of time. This will take the form of an ‘exemption period’ similar to that which is in place for election posters. The suggested period of time is 2 months with the option to extend by 2 weeks. This would require seeking permission to erect flags.
- That the Northern Ireland Executive would design guidelines for what flags are permitted to be flown, during which period of time and broad parameters under which how such displays can take place. This would allow Sinn Fein a veto over the guidelines and therefore the erection of flags.
- Any flag will be permitted so long as it is not perceived to be supporting a proscribed organisation. How this will be defined is not explained and will therefore lend itself to a broad and expansive definition in favour of those hostile to the flying of flags.
Sinn Fein have further stated that they will not discuss issues that had been part of the failed talks process and continue to demand that the union flag is not flown from any public buildings, unless done so alongside the Irish flag.
The commission was initially mandated to report to the Northern Ireland Executive, and given there is no executive in place discussions have taken place within the commission around who they should provide their ultimate report to, and whether there is any power to publish, or even proceed, with their work in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive.
Alongside these discussions the commission is considering publishing a report that allows members to sign up to some aspects, but not all of it, or alternatively publishing a report that commands simply majority support amongst commission members.
With the report, which no unionist on the commission has signed up to, currently drifting in the direction of regulation and de-facto licensing of unionist culture, is it not time that the DUP and UUP withdraw their representatives from the commission and essentially put a halt to the process which is clearly heading towards further eradication of PUL culture?