Stormont flags body costs almost £650,000 so far

Stormont flags body costs almost £650,000 so far
Stormont flags body costs almost £650,000 so far
Image caption The commission was set up to look at ways of securing consensus around issues involving flags, culture and identity

The Stormont body set up to examine flags and identity has cost more than half a million pounds so far, according to figures obtained by BBC News NI.

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) was set up in June 2016 by the Executive Office.

It was meant to report back within 18 months, but has yet to finish its work.

The Executive Office said implementation and publication plans will be decided when a report is agreed.

It told BBC News NI that the total cost for the commission, from when it was set up on 20 June 2016 to 31 March 2018, was £647,094.

About half - £330,020 - has been paid in that period to 14 of the panel's members for remuneration and expenses.

A breakdown of those figures is available here.

The commission, which has 15 members, is co-chaired by Queen's University academic Dr Dominic Bryan and community relations worker Neville Armstrong.

'Ongoing'

Seven members were appointed by political parties and eight were drawn from a recruitment process.

Five of those on the panel have links to unionism - it also includes a former Alliance Party special adviser, a former SDLP adviser and a former Sinn Féin councillor.

The only member who does not receive any money is the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLA Doug Beattie, as he is an elected representative.

The commission was announced as part of the Fresh Start Agreement, negotiated by the Stormont parties in November 2015.

Image caption Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since the power-sharing institutions collapsed in January 2017

In a statement, the Executive Office said the commission had been tasked with examining a range of "long standing, complex and challenging areas in relation to the expression of national and cultural identity" within Northern Ireland.

It was supposed to report its findings in December 2017, but the Executive Office said work was "ongoing".

BBC News NI understands that a draft report has been written, but any final report and recommendations would need to be brought to executive ministers for consideration - something that could not happen until devolution is restored.

'Deeply disappointing'

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed almost 18 months ago.

A DUP spokesperson said the commission had an important role to play in providing recommendations relating to the issues it was tasked to consider.

It is "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," they added.

"Positive steps taken by communities are to be welcomed as they seek to demonstrate leadership within their local area."

Last week, an agreement was reached to limit the number of flags on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon said "significant outstanding issues" remained, despite work done by the commission to reach a consensus over the past two years.

Image caption SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said the pace of output from the commission had been frustratingly slow

She criticised the flags protocol arrangement in south Belfast and said it was "about providing cover for those erecting flags in an effort to assert the dominance of one community over another".

'Talking forum'

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said another summer in Northern Ireland would go by without a way forward.

"We needed to deal with these issues and if (the commission) puts solutions that people buy into on the table, then it will potentially have been a bargain, but the pace of output from it is frustratingly slow and it will be hard for the public to justify another expense on another talking forum," she added.

UUP leader Robin Swann said he wrote to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, in January to express concerns about the length of time the commission was taking to complete its work.

He said the panel had been formed with "great expectations" but that further damage stood to be done to public confidence if the report was produced and "then immediately shelved until there are ministers in place," he added.

Alliance said it had backed the commission when it was established by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

"We are disappointed it hasn't been possible to reach agreement before now and are concerned at the ongoing cost of the commission," a spokesperson said.

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