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Quango watchdog raps Foster and McGuinness over male-dominated flag commission

Quango commissioner Judena Leslie (centre) with Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster in March this year as they announced new targets for redressing a gender imbalance in public appointments

THE Executive Office's appointment of a sole woman to the 15-strong commission for flags and identity is bad for Northern Ireland's image, according to the region's quango watchdog.

Commissioner for Public Appointments Judena Leslie said the make-up of the male-dominated group "runs counter to participative democracy".

Her statement comes after the co-chair of the new Stormont body on flags and identity Dominic Bryan told The Irish News that its gender imbalance was "glaring".

Nationalists have already highlighted the ostensibly unionist bias of the commission, however, Ms Leslie's criticism solely focuses on female under-representation and the appointment of Katy Radford, a former special adviser to the Commission for Victims and Survivors, alongside 14 men.

Seven of the appointees were recommended by Stormont parties, while the remaining eight members were selected after a public recruitment process.

Notably, it comes just weeks after First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told Ms Leslie they would increase the number of women on the boards of the north's quangos.

The Stormont leaders' assurances came after the latest report from the Commissioner for Public Appointments showed females, like young people, the disabled and ethnic minorities, were underrepresented on public bodies.

Ms Leslie's predecessor John Keanie quit his post last July due to frustration at a lack of change in the way quango members are selected.

Mr Keanie said he had particular concerns about the failure to address the propensity of white, middle-aged males on the boards of public bodies, as well as people sitting on several quangos at one time.

While Ms Leslie acknowledges that the new Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition is not a regulated body under the public appointments legislation and strictly speaking the targets endorsed in March this year by the first and deputy first ministers do not apply, she nevertheless believes the male-dominated group is "at total odds with the gender equality targets" set by the Stormont executive.

"The difference between the two types of bodies does not justify ignoring the principle of diversity and female representation set out in the executive targets," she said.

"The appointments to the commission do not just reflect a lost opportunity by ministers to implement a publicly stated commitment through action but appear to completely contradict that commitment."

Ms Leslie said the appointments gave the wrong impression that decisions on flags and identity were "best done mainly by men".

"This is plainly wrong but it also presents a backward image of Northern Ireland," she said.

The commissioner stressed that she was not questioning the ability of any individual appointee but she said the overall composition presented "an extremely old fashioned image of a public body that runs counter to participative democracy".

"It is not a good image for Northern Ireland," Ms Leslie said.

A spokesman for the Executive Office said the process for selecting the eight non-politically nominated members was "independently managed".

"It involved a public call for applications which was open to anyone to apply," the spokesman said.

"This was followed by an assessment against set criteria, after which the appointments were made along with the appointment of seven nominees from the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party."

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