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Flags commission report won't be published without ministers in post

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster in June 2016 with flags commission chairs Dominic Bryan and Neville Armstrong
Brendan Hughes

A STORMONT report on addressing flags and bonfire controversies will not be published until it has been signed off by future ministers, officials have said.

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) was formed in June 2016 under the DUP and Sinn Féin's 'Fresh Start' agreement to make recommendations on dealing with the contentious issues.

The 15-member panel's report was expected to have been completed by last month, but it's understood it could take at least another few months to finish.

However, civil servants running Stormont following the executive's collapse a year ago say the findings will be withheld from publication until considered by ministers.

It emerges following criticism of a "pick and mix" approach to publishing government reports in the absence of an executive.

Last year The Irish News revealed at least 19 completed reports are being withheld from publication because departmental officials say they need ministers to sign-off their release.

However, at least 10 have been released even though staff admit they would normally require ministerial approval to publish them.

When asked for a copy of their policy on how these decisions are made, Stormont departments confirmed that no such policy exists.

The unpublished reports include a high-profile paper on the north's abortion laws, completed over a year ago.

It recommends legislative change to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) – when medics believe the unborn will die in the womb or shortly after birth.

Other shelved papers include an annual report on ministers' special advisers.

In November, Amnesty International's Grainne Teggart said senior civil servants should ensure transparency in the absence of ministers.

"The absence of ministers is no justification for allowing a culture of secrecy to cloak government," she said.

"The head of the Civil Service should give clear direction to move away from the current 'pick and mix' approach across the departments."

Civil servants came under pressure from campaigners to publish the FFA report after other government documents were disclosed without ministerial sign-off.

In September, the Department of Education published a report on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) pupils' experiences at school that had remained under wraps for almost 17 months.

The department said officials originally felt its release "should be cleared by a minister", but decided to publish "in light of the increasing volume of enquiries".

Last summer's bonfire and flags controversies included UVF flags being put up in a shared Belfast housing development where four Catholic families were later forced to flee their homes following threats blamed on the loyalist paramilitary group.

An Executive Office spokesman said: "The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was established as part of the Fresh Start Agreement. The report is not yet completed.

"It will be for ministers to consider its findings and agree publication arrangements."

A FICT spokeswoman said: "No decisions have been taken in relation to the processes around approval and publication of the commission's report."

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