Draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002

[back to previous text]

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. Equally, I join him in noting that the amendment to the regulations arises for reasons of both sadness and celebration. We all remember the enormous contribution of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret to public life and to Northern Ireland during their long service to the country. It is sad that those days are to be removed from the calendar, but it is also a cause for celebration that the flags will be flown for three days over the jubilee.

Northern Ireland is in a peculiar situation, as the issue of symbols and images is particularly loaded there. During the Assembly's proceedings on this subject, there was no discussion of the merits of the amendment—its Members merely endorsed it. The Sinn Fein Member's contribution, concerning where the powers for making the regulations should lie, provided the only note of controversy.

I take on board the Minister's comments about the intentions underlying the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Ideally, the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland should be able to be deal with these matters, but that cannot be the case in the present circumstances.

The Opposition have no difficulty with the detail of the amendment, and I join the Minister in congratulating Her Majesty, and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, on their highly successful visit

Column Number: 7

to Northern Ireland last week. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on instantly identifying the lacuna that is now in the detail of the regulations, and I join her in asking the Government to undertake a tidying-up process. It is odd that particular buildings, rather than classes of buildings, are listed, because the uses of buildings change over time. The legislation is meant to apply to classes of buildings, and it is absurd that it will have to be changed whenever there is a new building—such as the courts at Laganside. That must be addressed.

I take on board the Minister's point that these issues, as they affect the Royal Courts of Justice, will be dealt with under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, which has passed through its first go in this place, before their Lordships take a look at it and perhaps refer certain details back here, subject to the flexibility of the Government.

This matter must be clarified. Any ambiguity will merely lend itself to the creation of a debilitating and unnecessary discussion about symbols and emblems, which is such a sensitive subject in Northern Ireland. We would welcome clarification, but the Opposition have no difficulty with the amendment.

4.48 pm

Lady Hermon: I, too, am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) rightly said that flags have been especially controversial in Northern Ireland. The Belfast agreement made it much more important to clarify the position. The agreement was endorsed by the majority of people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The wishes of the majority were that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was guaranteed: it will be part of the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of the people consent otherwise. However, a later part of the agreement also stated that all participants

    ''should acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes.''

The key is to get the balance right. The Assembly experienced great difficulty with that and could not reach any firm conclusions, so the then Secretary of State had to resolve the issue with the 2000 regulations.

I have never liked those regulations. They identified buildings by name and location, including, as I have said, the Department of Education, which is in Bangor, in my constituency. The Minister of Education is from Sinn Fein, which has not taken its seats in our House. There are strong rumours that the Department may be moved outside my constituency, so it is with intense irritation and frustration that I, who fully support the agreement, note that it will not be respected by the flags regulations unless they are amended to cover any future move of the Department of Education. That must be covered.

The Northern Ireland Assembly report, copies of which we have recently received, tells us that the 2000 regulations apply to Government buildings alone.

Column Number: 8

Those buildings are narrowly defined in those regulations to cover only those mainly or wholly occupied by Northern Ireland civil servants. That has the peculiar result that the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont falls outside their ambit.We have two flagpoles on Stormont, and nothing creates more offence to people in the Unionist community than bare flagpoles where they expect to see a flag. Fortunately, the Northern Ireland Commission, made up of a few select Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, possesses the common sense, dignity and wisdom to resolve that the Assembly itself should follow the pattern of Government buildings. However, that is a decision of the commission and is not put in place by the 2000 regulations.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady seeks to encourage the Government to legislate for the building that is principally occupied by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I draw a parallel with this building, which is a Parliament building mainly occupied by Parliament. It is for Parliament to decide whether flags will fly over this building, not for the Government to impose a regulation on it. I ask her to consider whether it is appropriate to treat Stormont in such a way and whether the decision made by those who principally occupy the building was not the right one.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, which brings me to the point that Northern Ireland's constitutional status is that of the rest of the United Kingdom. One would expect that there should be no debate over a major Government building such as the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly and that the flag should fly over it on the same basis as it does in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The 2000 regulations have been challenged in the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland by Mr. Conor Murphy, who argued that they were incompatible with the agreement. The decision was instructive: of course, the judge upheld the regulations, saying:

    ''The Union flag is the flag of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is a part. It is the judgement of the Secretary of State that it should be flown on government buildings only on those days on which it is flown in Great Britain. By thus confining the days on which the flag is to appear, the Secretary of State sought to strike the correct balance between, on the one hand, acknowledging Northern Ireland's constitutional position, and, on the other, not giving offence to those who oppose it. That approach seems to me to exemplify a proper regard for ''partnership, equality and mutual respect'' and to fulfil the Government's undertaking that its jurisdiction in Northern Ireland ''shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people''.

That was a good and instructive judgment. The judge clearly repeated the judgment that the flag should be flown on the same days as it is flown in Great Britain. From that judgment, I would suggest to the Minister that in future the flag should be flown on Government buildings on the same basis on which it is flown in the rest of the United Kingdom. Because the instrument contains amendments allowing the Union flag to be flown in Northern Ireland during the official celebration of Her Majesty's golden jubilee on 1, 3 and 4 June 2002—sadly, it will not be flown on the

Column Number: 9

birthdays of either Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother or Princess Margaret—we are happy to support it.

4.55 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I should like to associate the Liberal Democrats with the welcome to the Chair that you have already received, Mr. Cook.

I should also like to associate the Liberal Democrats with the remarks that have been made about the sad losses of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The amendment recognises that it is no longer

Column Number: 10

appropriate to fly flags on their birthdays. It is entirely appropriate that flags should be flown throughout the United Kingdom in honour of the 50 years of universally acknowledged selfless service by Her Majesty to all parts of the United Kingdom. As I intended, I have confined my remarks entirely to the instrument.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002.

        Committee rose at four minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Cook, Mr. Frank (Chairman)
Blunt, Mr.
Burden, Richard
Calton, Mrs.
Hayes, Mr.
Hermon, Lady
Howarth, Alan
McCafferty, Chris
McIsaac, Shona
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Merron, Gillian
Stringer, Mr.
Swire, Mr.
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Wright, Mr. Anthony D.

The following Member also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Luke, Mr. Iain (Dundee, East)

 
Previous Contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 20 May 2002