MLA Christopher Stalford was speaking after the publication of the long-delayed report from the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT).
The commission failed to find consensus on changing legislation around the flying of flags from lampposts or on how to deal with the paramilitary memorials and monuments dotted across NI.
“The answer on these matters is mutual respect but it is hard to come by when Sinn Fein campaigns to remove every trace of Britishness from Northern Ireland,” Mr Stalford said.
“Sinn Fein in 2021 denied unionist MLAs the opportunity to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary by laying a simple stone or planting a rose bush in Stormont. Sinn Fein snub the Royal Family [and are] unable to even mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing in the same way as other countries.
“Such cultural and identity weaponisation will make solutions very difficult to come by as some want cultural domination rather than respect.”
Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney said that publishing the report without an implementation plan was a “mistake” and called for “an orderly implementation” of its deliverable proposals, PA reported.
The report said that many “challenges remain” surrounding flags, bonfires and memorials.
There has already been criticism that the 168-page report, which has cost approximately £800,000, is not accompanied by a plan for implementing its recommendations.
The commission was set up in 2016 to find consensus on a number of contentious issues, but devolution collapsed before it could deliver a report.
Its findings were submitted to the first and deputy first ministers last July, and were finally published yesterday.
It made 44 recommendations but it is unlikely they will be enacted. There are 15 commissioners, including seven from political parties and eight independent members, overseen by Professor Dominic Bryan.
On the issue of flying flags on lampposts or other street furniture, the report states: “The commission could not agree on whether changes should be made to current legislation in order to create a similar exemption to that which exists for election posters.
“Consequently, without any legislative changes, the commission is not in a position to recommend a code of practice that would accompany any such legislative change.”
The report also said there had been “no meeting point” reached on the flying of flags at public buildings. Nor could commissioners agree to take an audit of the number of memorials – mainly paramilitary related – on public land or buildings. The report said that flags supporting paramilitary organisations should not be flown.
The commission also discussed the possibility of developing a new civic flag to be “representative of the diversity of our society”.
On bonfires, it recommended that the Executive recognises “that they are an important aspect of the culture, identity and tradition of communities and are therefore a legitimate form of celebration or commemoration, provided they are compliant with the law”.
The report finally recommended that an Executive action plan was produced on how to implement its recommendations, and to explore unresolved issues.
First Minister Paul Givan said the the report had considered a range of complex issues. He added: “It is right that the public have a chance to see the report and have their say, and today’s publication will allow them to do that.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “The FICT report examines a number of sensitive issues across our community. Addressing these issues is an important part of moving our shared society forward and I put on record my thanks to the commission for their efforts in undertaking this challenging work.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said little had been agreed, and so it was “a colossal waste of money”. He said it was clear that some within the media are intent on using ideas that were “discussed but not agreed – such as the preposterous suggestion that the Irish tricolour would be given parity on buildings – as the basis to frame public debate”.
Speaking in a personal capacity, PUP deputy leader John Kyle said that any report without an action plan will simply gather dust. “This report, which contains some credible and valuable recommendations, will be a waste of time and public money if there is no implementation plan,” he added.
Sinn Fein’s Mr Kearney said: “I would much rather see scaffolding established in order to ensure an orderly implementation of those proposals within the report that I believe are deliverable.
“There are then clearly challenges which remain, but if we had had a framework of next steps then we could tackle those.
“It is for the parties who oppose the good sense of an implementation plan to speak and answer for themselves.”
SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said the first and deputy first ministers sat on the report for 16 months before MLAs compelled them to publish it. These issues go to the heart of divisions, she said, which was far too important to allow the document to become “an £800,000 ornament” at Stormont.
Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson said loyalists should be very attentive to the outworking of any regulation flowing from the report. He said: “It is not about enhancing culture, it is about strangling it – slowly but decisively – via carefully constructed regulatory architecture which is superficially attractive, and often buttressed with financial incentives, but which is ultimately culturally corrosive.”#
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