The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition has been established as part of commitments made under the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements.
Given experience, and the political background to the Commission, there must be deep reservations about any final Report; and more specifically the use of that Report beyond what any might imagine or intend.
The Commission’s website states that its task is to take forward a programme of work, which will 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 related issues whilst highlighting where challenges remain; and producing a report and recommendations on the way forward.
What sort of questions does the Commission ask?
- In your opinion how can we ensure that in Northern Ireland we develop a rich diverse community in which cultural expression can be celebrated?
- Do you have any examples of positive practice in relation to display of flags, identity, culture and tradition that have been accepted in a positive manner by communities of different backgrounds and traditions?
- What do you consider are the issues in respect of flags, identity, culture and tradition in your community or within Northern Ireland as a whole?
- What barriers presently exist to making progress to become a society that understands and accepts different cultures and expressions of these?
Matters of context.
The common British definition of culture is; “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”. An American definition might expand slightly as; “the way of life of a particular people, especially as shown in their ordinary behaviour and habits, their attitudes toward each other and their moral and religious beliefs.”
Culture is where qualities and values are shared through common tradition, perhaps using common symbolism, symbols and even flags, to identify, and identify perhaps with a shared identity.
Culture enriches, when accepted for what it is. Without a range of cultures, and micro cultures, we would be unable to speak of diversity, equality and respect. The opposite is mono-culture and, tending towards that by degree, an environment that accepts or ignores a culture or cultures being demonised, disrespected, diminished and placed under restriction in the interests, or for the approval, of another culture or in the interests of another group.
When considering The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, rather than simply try to respond to the rather vague and open brief as outlined, it is necessary to look first at the nature and purpose of this Commission. That the points made are of a general nature make them no less important to note.
It is important for the Commission, the composition of which does not reflect the communities most exercised on the issues it is considering, to understand the unease that those communities have in respect of the consequences of any “Report”.
Past (and all too recent) experiences
For many (apart from the vast majority of the population who have barely noticed its existence) unease at the establishment of the Commission is based on experience of where, what would at face value would start as worthwhile, a Report has developed into a unstoppable process. That ‘process’ becomes one of diminishing return: while along the way those who engaged and tried to embrace change positively are left feeling used and, when no longer of any value, mostly discarded and hung out to dry.
The North Report was meant to be a simple review of parading in Northern Ireland. It turned into a regulatory framework, a ‘process’ that is centered on the Parades Commission. Today, Parades Commission Determinations significantly over-reach and consistently seem based on a misunderstanding of the brief on which it was established – though that pathway was established some years ago.
Determinations around Parades deemed by the Police on an 11/3 as ‘contentious’ tend to be variously vague, general and seemingly geared to delivering a public order outcome (prevent republicans bringing violence to the streets) rather than a determination on the basis of facts or evidence presented in respect of parades; demanding conditions mostly beyond the gift of those engaged locally.
While the Parades legislation is always presented as being relevant to “all” parades, the impact is overwhelmingly to regulate and determine the nature and conduct of a particular cultural expression. The demonisation, disrespect and diminishment of parades is undertaken with political purpose; while it has been the Parades Commission that has been called upon to curtail cultural expression and the freedom of assembly for others’ interests – and has delivered for a singular political agenda by taking an onerous presumption against lawful, peaceful cultural expression.
Within the Parades ‘process’ the Loyal Orders were entreated to engage in dialogue. Dialogue was central to resolution of Parades the country was told. However, experience shows “dialogue” was used to identify community leaders, with information gathered from tables around which dialogue took place and from the offices of the Parades Commission itself (continued) for the benefit of a proscribed organisation.
Dialogue meant visits from the PSNI to the homes, to our family homes, to warn of our names being on IRA lists. That is a matter of public record, even though most public attention rested on the great and the good the community impact was real. Unsurprisingly investigations into this were never reported, and the matter quietly shelved.
Nor does the Parades Commission operate to any international standards on rights; though this seems not to bother those who might otherwise be shouting loudly about ‘rights’. It acts in the interests of public order (not within its legislative or regulatory remit), despite freedom of assembly being given precedence by the European Court of Human Rights (see Alekseyev v Russia 2011).
It must also be kept in mind that for the most part police presence at Parades is there to protect those walking on parade, lawfully. Yet, as in North Belfast, and elsewhere, the full weight of the authorities is reined against those walking on Parade or others from the same community walking alongside, with attention to repeated breaches of Parades Commission on protest determinations being rewarded by further restrictions on the fully compliant Parades year after year; and again this year.
The Parades Commission relies on the fact that while a ‘resident’ may gain legal aid to challenge a Determination, an individual who is denied the opportunity of cultural expression and free association in doing nothing that is of itself illegal is not able to source legal aid. Imbalance, and inequity is inherent to the Parades Commission writ.
Meanwhile republicans who do not give notice to the PSNI, or those who simply ignore the inherent code of conduct, are not challenged by the authorities.
In recent years there was a concerted effort to impose the weight of the law by strict interpretation of rulings by the Parades Commission. This resulted in a large number of arrests and court cases against Parade participants. In many cases this led to considerable work and life disruption; including cases that turned out to be rejected by the Courts. This is in contrast to the most recent examples of light sentences to dissident republicans, relaxed bail conditions, and the inability to keep prisoners safely locked up. It is not hard for unionists to imagine ‘agendas’ at work.
The Parades Commission represents nothing short of State regulation of culture. It would be hard to find an example in Europe of such an imposition on the freedom of cultural expression.
Halls, parades and members have been attacked, the physical expression of contempt of culture.
Inherent contradictions between words and actions
The Belfast Agreement is talked of as being built on equality, respect and diversity. Yet the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement has seen the visible symbols of State, the British State, the one confirmed and endorsed in referendum, being removed from the institutions of State – from the badges of the PSNI; from the walls of the Courts; and from the flagpoles of civic buildings.
The visible, deliberate and conscious removal of British identity from the public sphere seems contrary to the Good Friday Agreement confirming the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK, the British State, and removing the irredentist Articles 2 & 3 claim of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution; endorsed by republican and unionist alike in referendum.
Politics at play
The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition arose out of the Alliance Party collapsing the Haass talks on the basis of no-one agreeing to a “Flags Commission”, with the idea being carried forward into all-Party talks that followed subsequently.
While the remit of the current Commission may have been expanded to encompass a wider set of issues (symbols, identity and culture) the central issue remains one of flags; reflective of the political fall out from the decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall (except on designated days); and the obsession of the Alliance Party with flags flying on the lamp posts of the leafier avenues of Belfast.
What is the Commission’s purpose?
Collectively the points above, by way of context, has created a great deal of suspicion in respect of ideas, proposals or Commissions that tend to use phrases such as: “rich diverse community”; “in which cultural expression can be celebrated”; “positive practice”; “making progress”; or “understands and accepts”. Suspicion is definitely not in respect of giving meaning to “diversity, equality and respect” – which are themselves essential to civil and religious liberties.
Rather, experience for much of the past 20 years provides evidence that the terminology of ‘diversity, equality, respect’ has been used consistently to diminish, disrespect (some might say humiliate, belittle) and undermine the identity and expression of those who would be British and unionist; at its very basic, a way and means to ‘poke the prods’.
Therefore, given this experience, and the political background to the Commission, there must be deep reservations about any final Report; and more specifically the use of that Report beyond what any might imagine or intend.
What happens when a particular culture attains a particular status, which is viewed as distinctively disadvantageous to another? While Gaelic games are encouraged and celebrated within the PSNI, our young people must resign all contact with the Loyal Orders if they are to have a career. Because? Does the PSNI believe that Unionists will accept that GAA members are more likely to act without prejudice than the sons, brothers, friends and fathers of Members of the Loyal Orders? What is the equality and respect of cultures evidenced here?
On Irish language, areas already have streets written in Irish. This is of course entirely legal, and there is a whole formal process to follow before this happens in a locality. Yet for many travelling through areas with Irish road signs it isn’t cultural, but marking territory: if there is consultation on the signage, who would be prepared to object even if a threat was merely perceived rather than real? And if it is accepted that local road signs are purely cultural, whether Irish or Ulster Scots, then how much more or less is that a manifestation of culture within and of a community than the building and lighting of bonfires?
When the ideas that would be associated with words such as ‘equality’ are used as ‘trojan phrases’ in political discourse then it is hard to fathom the integrity of those making the loudest noise on such matters.
This is the poison in the political discourse.
While this newspaper report may well have been based on what might have been an unguarded moment it does not reduce the power or impact of the words. There will remain an ever-present doubt about goodwill and genuine intentions; it is hard to distinguish any longer between an honest intention and a political play.
That poison is regarded as being all too present in respect of the Parades Commission, which started life (though not as a recommendation) from the North Report and has become an unaccountable Star Chamber.
Any further regulation of cultural freedoms, whether by expression or assembly or any other manifestation, would be wholly unacceptable.
It doesn’t really matter what the final report from the Commission says. The devil will no doubt be the detail that will be read (or wilfully inferred) between the lines; whatever is required, by whoever, to pursue specific agendas. Already an Alliance Party MLA has started preparing draft legislation to establish a ‘Flags Commission’ or something along that pathway.
It would be largely perceived from within the broad unionist community that, however carefully “balanced” a final report is written, the consequent use of passages and thoughts arising from that will be selectively appropriated to no great benefit to those of British identity in Northern Ireland.
The Commission will no doubt serve a purpose in kicking around some issues on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. However, this catchall scope itself shows how far the political class is distanced from the day-to-day lives of people.
Flags represent culture that is expressed through tradition that goes to the nature of the identity of each and every one of us.
If a reggae band were to play in a public space as part of any of the many festivals we have in Northern Ireland, people would most probably stand, listen, possibly dance a little. Even though reggae is far away from any local culture it would be appreciated in its own right, respected, enjoyed – or, as with those who simply walked on, ignored.
What would be unacceptable would be to see any physical attack, verbal abuse, or demonization of that example of cultural expression. Nor would it be the correct response to any improper and even illegal activity associated with protest against that cultural assembly/expression to initiate legislation, regulation or instruction to be imposed (or engineered through funding) to make it a mandated part of, or to exclude it from, public space. That is what has happened in respect of Parades. Restrictions to freedom of Assembly in Northern Ireland has not been constrained because of those on Parade, but because republican/nationalist opposition was underscored by a willingness to blame those acting lawfully for violence brought to the streets by a republican tradition which eulogises ‘physical force’.
Identity is personal, it is individual, and by respecting the person we create a more tolerant and open society. The alternative is where groups demand their (selective) rights and end up competing for public space. By respecting each other we create a shared space where voluntary collaboration can be both fulfilling and positive. Change starts with one person making common cause: not by the imposition of a collective will on how people should regard the essence of who they are.
No two people are alike, no one has to like everything about everyone else – whether taste in music, football or literature.
This Commission is following a political play, by politicians, many of whom have shown little understanding or respect of the others’ culture. The political classes have outsourced their own failure to this Commission and will singularly, perhaps collectively, use the conclusions to reinforce and to validate their own pre-conceived ideas.
No doubt at some point, resort will be made to the Law, politicians justifying their own political failure in pursuing Rules by Law, and making it up as to how this fits the justice of Rule of Law.
An onus of responsibility for the future of cultural diversity, equality and respect has been passed on to the Commission. Yet the Commission is of itself a symbol of failure.
Whatever the good intentions of its members, any final in Report will be a flag of convenience to cover the political schemes of the few to impose a narrow sectarian outlook on the nature of identity and culture upon us all. The Commission in time will be proven to have been used as a false flag exercise.
This article is adapted from a Submission to The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, with amends (as always) after a read and re-read, and with links for additional context.