Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: Once again, I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. His amendment, which refers to the exterior of the courthouse and so on, opens with the words:

    ''No other symbols must be displayed''.

Will he explain how the words, ''No other symbols'' are compatible with the provision in the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—that refers to symbols being

    ''used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division''?

Does he accept that the removal of symbols, and the neutrality that that would introduce, would achieve the opposite of promoting mutual respect?

Mr. Mallon: No, I do not. Those of us who have lived all our lives in Northern Ireland know of and have seen circumstances in which symbols, perhaps not noticeable to others, mean something, either negative or positive. Through my amendment, I am trying to ensure that the new criminal justice system is a fresh start, which is not based on residues from the past and is not a recreation of something that could divide people and prevent individuals from all sections of the community from giving their full support to the process of justice.

Lembit Öpik: The Assembly itself was a new start, and it managed to broker a symbol that is now generally accepted by all sides. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the establishment of a symbol for the courthouse that is accepted by everybody in the community would be a greater triumph than the somewhat draconian measure of banning symbols altogether, thus preventing unification behind certain symbols?

Mr. Mallon: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The remarkable effort that went into the symbol of the Assembly predated it. Someone, as yet unidentified, had a bright idea and published it; we all accepted it, thought that it was good and tried to claim it for ourselves, which did not work. I take the hon. Gentleman's point; once again, his remarks are true and have a lot of validity.

However, we are in a difficult position because we are dealing, in a Standing Committee, with a piece of legislation. We do not have the luxury of going out that door, waiting six or 10 weeks then getting into a

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huddle and negotiating the Bill—or whatever may happen before or after Report, or after it becomes law. That is the difficulty to which I alluded earlier. In effect, when one is dealing in a Committee such as this with a piece of legislation such as this, one does not have those luxuries—nor do I believe that the Government should have them. That is why my amendment is very specific, because I believe that it is necessary.

Lembit Öpik: I asked the hon. Gentleman the question, but he and I must agree to differ, because I am optimistic that, on the basis of what has happened with the police emblems and what happened at Stormont—though he rightly explained the somewhat crafty way in which that was achieved—it is possible to find symbols that, for want of a better phrase, define the character of justice in Northern Ireland without being offensive to any side. To establish such symbols would be a greater achievement than to take away the opportunity for cultural expression in the Province's courts.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the debates on the form of those new symbols could become heated. However, that could be helpful, because it could force people to focus on finding a symbol that makes the kind of cultural statements that they want to make without denying other sides in the community cultural expression.

My other point is a human one. It would be a shame if the courtrooms in Northern Ireland were forbidden to use any kind of symbol, because that is not the way that human beings are—it does not reflect the way in which they celebrate their identity. Courtrooms with no symbols would be cold and sterile—they would be all about head and not much about heart. It should be recognised that human beings are entitled to show more than a room's sterilised function. As I look around this Room, I see many different, unnecessary symbols. I would expect and hope that nobody in the Committee would find them offensive, but they add to the character and in some ways to the status of the Room.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman proposed this amendment, because much of the time in Northern Ireland symbols have been used as a statement of oppression or a way of snubbing other cultures. On the basis of precedents from the past few years, we have moved some way forward. I am enough of an optimist to believe that those precedents, which were set either craftily or through formalised debate, as occurred with the police symbols, could be replicated in this case, reaching a successful conclusion.

5.30 pm

Mr. Campbell: I want to speak to new clause 3. Again, I want to come to the issue of the symbols and their uncontroversial nature.

As I said in relation to a previous amendment, down the years in Northern Ireland, issues of a controversial nature have often taken place in courtrooms, and the events that have transpired or been the subject of proceedings have attracted television cameras and headlines. Many people have

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been subjected to the presence of the media in the courtroom or have seen reports in the newspapers or on their television screens, but on no occasion do I recall the display of the royal arms becoming the subject of controversy.

In fact, in an Ad Hoc Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I put several questions to the Law Society about the issue in relation to other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister will have more first-hand and relevant experience of the matter in Scotland, where the tide of nationalist opinion may rise and abate, but there has been no evidence of a demand for the removal of the royal coat of arms. There has not been such a campaign in Northern Ireland either, but now we have the Belfast agreement, from which this and other issues have flowed.

Many people in Northern Ireland deeply resent the tributaries that seem to flow from the river called the Belfast agreement, all of which seem to flow in a particular direction. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that, when such issues are discussed, there is a deep reservoir of opinion on either side. However, if as a result of the hon. Gentleman's amendment and the defeat of new clause 3, we extend that position further to create a neutral, symbol-free environment, when there was no controversy before, that will be seen by many in the Unionist community to be a step in a particular direction.

Some Members have alluded to the successful conclusion of the debate about the police badge. It should be remembered that the old RUC badge contained several symbols, more Irish than British, and was not the subject of contention until some people in the community thought that political capital could be gained and demanded that it be changed. The Patten report made a particular recommendation, which was, to some extent, set to one side as a result of the unanimous approval of the Policing Board of a badge that had similar connotations to the old RUC badge. I hesitate to suggest that we could be getting into a circular argument, but if it were mandatory for the royal arms to be displayed on the exterior of each courthouse and on the interior of each courtroom, it is my belief, supported by the evidence of the past, that no one would feel offended, and that it would not have a detrimental effect either on those whose professional expertise brings them within the jurisdiction of the court, or on the defendants who come to the court. It would not be seen as a detrimental step to communities that simply view the matter as something in which they have an interest but not one in which they have first-hand experience.

For the life of me, I cannot find any reasoning that would lead me to support the removal of something non-contentious, when the removal itself would be deeply contentious. I cannot understand why anyone would say that this move would somehow reconcile two sides.

Lady Hermon: Perhaps it would helpful to give some members of the Committee some idea of how many courtrooms and court buildings we are talking about in Northern Ireland. It is a small jurisdiction. People in the Northern Ireland Office have been

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enormously helpful in supplying statistics about the number of symbols inside and outside such buildings. I shall quantify the matter.

The royal coat of arms is embossed or sculpted—in other words, a fixture—into the fabric of a very small number of buildings. The present number of courtrooms that have internal coats of arms as a fixture is five, including Banbridge courthouse, which is earmarked under the accommodation strategy for possible closure. Therefore, in only a handful of courts is the coat of arms sculpted in.

I note with some confidence the statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on Second Reading to the effect that consultations have resulted from concerns about heritage, and that he would listen to views expressed on that matter. I am anxious that there should be no acts of vandalism—that is what they would amount to—and no hatchet job on listed buildings. We are talking about a mere handful of buildings, after all.

There are 69 courtrooms plus one county court to which coats of arms are fixed with a screw, for example, but are not a fixture. Ten courtrooms have external coats of arms. The Belfast magistrates court was due for closure at the end of January 2002, removing it from that category, so only 10 courthouses carry the coat of arms.

I always take the agreement as the touchstone by which the Bill and, by extension, the review must be measured, as it was approved by a significant majority in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in referendums. I draw attention to three paragraphs. First, the beginning of the agreement states that

    ''Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll''.

The constitution states clearly that Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom unless or until a majority of people vote otherwise.

Towards the end of the agreement, there is an enormously useful reminder to all the participants who

    ''acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.''

A whole paragraph was dedicated to the use of symbols, in which the point was made about symbols promoting

    ''mutual respect rather than division.''

I draw the Committee's attention again to the beginning of the agreement, which records that the British and Irish Governments and the other participants agreed that

    ''the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions''.

That is something, I am sure, with which we would all agree. However, I would not like to put words into the mouths of hon. Members, particularly not that of the hon. Member for East Londonderry, who, I am sure, would not wish me to.

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The Committee will be interested to know that those provisions were considered in a recent court case in Northern Ireland. For the benefit of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, I would mention that the High Court decision was delivered by Mr. Justice Kerr, on 4 October 2001. The case tested the compatibility of the flags regulations with the agreement. The clauses of the agreement to which I drew the Committee's attention were tested on that occasion. The applicant had claimed that the regulations were incompatible with the Good Friday agreement—particularly in that they failed to have regard to the partnership, equality and mutual respect between opposing political parties—and that they failed to fulfil the Government's commitment to exercise them with rigorous impartiality. However, Mr. Justice Kerr upheld the regulations by a very useful interpretation of the agreement, which would enlighten our debate about the use of symbols in courthouses. I quote from page 18 of his judgment:

    ''The Union flag is the flag of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part. It is the judgment 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 in the diversity of their identities and traditions.''

If, by extension, we apply that interpretation of the agreement and how legislation should be ruled to be compatible with the agreement, I suggest that—bearing in mind the groups of courts that we have considered—those courts where the royal coat of arms is embossed into the fabric of the building and the 69 courts, plus one county court, where the royal coat of arms is affixed should remain, because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. That is the constitutional position. The balance could be struck in that the 16 new courtrooms could have mutually agreed symbols. That seems wholly compatible with the provisions of the agreement.

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Prepared 12 February 2002