Sinn Fein asleep at the wheel over Parades, Flags & Identity Commission

The Irish News broke a story yesterday revealing that Neville Armstrong, the Independent joint chairman of the new Flags, Parades and Identity Commission established under the Fresh Start Agreement, is also a DUP appointee to a SIF group.

In fact, as John Manley outlines in the paper, he is the DUP’s “sole political appointee on the body overseeing SIF projects in the ‘Western’ zone, which includes Co Fermanagh and Co Tyrone.”

The composition of that committee was already the subject of contention given its overwhelmingly pro-Unionist membership.

The commission includes seven political nominees and eight ‘independent‘ appointments, but what is very clear from even a cursory glance at the membership is that unionists were clearly extremely organised to ensure that their views and perspectives were well represented among the members who secured independent appointment.

Neville Armstrong had previously been depicted as a “community worker,” and the Irish News notes that he has “declined to say” whether he is a DUP member.

From The Irish News article:

“When the make-up of the commission was announced nearly six months ago, the SDLP voiced concerns that five of its members had clear links to unionism, including two of the non-political appointments. Just three nationalists sit on the panel, and only one woman.

Mr Armstrong was not regarded at the time as being linked to any political party.” (emphasis added.)

It is worth exploring the appointments in more detail to establish just how unionists were able to gain the upper hand and in a manner that has damaged the credibility of the commission prior to it even presenting recommendations.

Political appointments

  • Mr Doug Beattie MLA MC (UUP)
  • Mr Carl Whyte (SDLP)
  • Mr Richard Good (ALL)
  • Mr Tom Hartley (SF)
  • Mr Donncha Mac Niallais (SF)
  • Mr Nelson McCausland MLA (DUP)
  • Mr Ian McCrea (DUP)

Non-Political appointments

  • Dr Dominic Paul Bryan (joint chair)
  • Mr Neville Armstrong (joint chair)
  • Prof Thomas William Hennessey
  • Dr David Thomas Hume MBE
  • Dr Katy Radford MBE
  • Mr David Anthony Robinson
  • Mr Mukesh Sharma MBE
  • Mr Ian Crozier

The Commission was established under the now year-old Fresh Start Agreement, where its means of agreeing recommendations were outlined as follows:

The report and recommendations will be agreed by a majority of the overall Commission, including at least five of the seven members appointed by party leaders.

The background and stated positions of many political and purportedly non-political commission members indicates that the opinion of the majority is likely to solidly reflect a unionist outlook.

David Hume was a senior figure within the Orange Order for twelve years, only leaving his post as Director of Services within the past twelve months.

Ian Crozier resigned as a DUP councillor in 2011 to become the chief executive of the Ulster Scots Agency.

The joint chair of the group (alongside Armstrong) is Dr Dominic Paul Bryan, who has put his name to a report, published in February 2016, which included a clear recommendation that majority nationalist councils- including Derry and Strabane, Mid-Ulster, Newry/Mourne and Down & Fermanagh and Omagh- be forced to fly the Union Flag 18 days a year (the designated days policy favoured by some Unionist councils.) According to Bryan and fellow author, Paul Nolan, this is somehow to be construed as ‘symmetrical pain’ as unionists would be forced to not fly the Union Flag on more days than the 18 designated where they form a majority.

His recommendations did not include flying the Irish National Flag from civic premises in Northern Ireland, a key element of Sinn Fein’s Equality or Neutrality policy on flags from civic premises in the north of Ireland, outlined in the party’s submission to the Haass Talks in 2013 here.

So the position of the joint chairs can be summed up as being somewhere between recommending that the Union Flag fly on every council 18 days a year (Bryan) and the as yet stated position of a DUP political appointee, a party whose stated position is that the Union Flag should fly every day from all councils in the state.

It is hard to conclude anything other than that the composition of the commission is another example of DUP-led unionism outmaneouvring Sinn Fein-led nationalism in precisely the type of manner that has led to nationalist disillusionment, a point which Fionnuala O’Connor perceptively touched on during BBC NI’s The View last Thursday (33 mins in.)

The fact that no voices from the GAA, nor Irish language movement, were appointed from amongst the non-political appointments is noteworthy in itself, in contrast to the appointments of senior figures from within both the Loyal Orders and Ulster-Scots Agency.

But the nature of Sinn Fein’s political appointments is revelatory in itself. Both Tom Hartley and Donncha MacNiallais are names from the past, respected as republicans and no doubt trusted by the party leadership to fulfil a role. But given the critical legislative dimension to the remit of this group, Sinn Fein’s continuing failure to entice and recruit individuals with a professional legal background- in marked contrast to the DUP- is all the more apparent.

For quite some time now, the failure of Sinn Fein to expedite the process of transitioning to a new political leadership in the north, fit for purpose in an age of governance, has contributed towards the sense that the party plays second fiddle to the DUP at Stormont. Part of that problem relates to a seeming inability or reluctance to move past a modus operandi that has seen republicanism through its most challenging periods of ceasefires, peace process, political compromise and bedding in the northern institutions.

Recently, there have been signs that the republican leadership recognises the need for change, and it will be worth watching in coming days to see if the imminent co-option of a replacement MLA for West Belfast’s retiring Jennifer McCann represents a new departure for Sinn Fein.