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It is vital that this order goes through. The flags issue, important and symbolic though it is, should not impede this stage of the peace process. The order provides an opportunity for Northern Ireland opinion of all kinds to make its views felt when devolution returns, as we hope it will.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was on the Front Bench earlier today when I questioned the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on why Standing Order 72 was being dispensed with for the taking of this order so that it could be passed, notwithstanding the fact that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had not reported on it.
The noble Baroness's reasons seemed to me to be anodyne, so much so that one of my noble friends wanted to divide the House. In my view, that would have been quite wrong as the Motion which the noble Baroness sought to move at that point covered both orders. I am glad that, in the event, no Division was called.
The noble Baroness's reasons were, first, that this had been agreed through the usual channels, something of which I was not aware as I am not a member of the usual channels; and, secondly, that there is a Privy Council meeting tomorrow at which it is due to be discussed. It is my view that neither of those constitutes the emergency for which this standing order was designed.
The order transfers the responsibility for flags from the Assembly to the Secretary of State. As the noble and learned Lord said, there is no statutory provision for the flying of flags on government buildings in the United Kingdom. In Great Britain, the flying of the Union flag on public buildings is by royal command and is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, royal prerogative powers on transferred matters can be exercised by any Northern Ireland Minister. Since the flying of flags is a transferred matter, it should be dealt with, as the noble and learned Lord said, by the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, ultimately, by the Assembly itself.
However, in the light of political sensitivities concerning this matter, the Secretary of State has decided that he should take the authority to regulate the flying of flags on Northern Ireland government buildings should the need arise.
One of the reasons for that is the anticipation of the reconstitution or re-establishment of the Assembly on 22nd May, which is next week. Clearly, neither the Government nor anyone else wants that to start with a row on this or any other matter. One can understand that. Unfortunately, however, as I read the order, it does not stop the potentially antagonistic debate in the Assembly because the order provides that where the Secretary of State proposes to make regulations to regulate the flying of flags a draft of those regulations shall be referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly which, in turn, as the noble and learned Lord said, will
So I am even more confused. First, it will not stop the potential row; and secondly, the urgency simply disappears because the second order, which will operate the flying of flags, is still to be laid before the House.
Secondly, we are told in the Explanatory Note and, indeed, in the Minister's speech, that the Secretary of State will have regard to the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement clearly states that it is recognised:
Lord Rogan: My Lords, I, too, wish to speak on this order, the tone and tenor of which gives me grave concern. I believe that this issue cuts right across the unionism of the kingdom and lies at the heart of the Good Friday agreement.
The reason we are discussing this subject here today is largely due to the activities of two Sinn Fein/IRA Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive who, while in office, ordered the removal of the Union flag from their departmental building. I am sure that I do not need to remind anyone present in this House today of the importance which flags and emblems assume in Northern Ireland.
If there is serious doubt as to what flag should fly over government and public buildings in the Province, we must examine the nature of the Belfast agreement. It is either, as Unionists believe, a recognition by all sides of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom or as part of a process designed to move Northern Ireland inexplicably towards a united Ireland or some form of joint authority.
It is my view that while the order is a step forward in that it removes the power of banning the flying of the Union flag from individual members of the Northern Ireland Executive and places that power in the hands of the Secretary of State, I believe that today we should instead be discussing on what days the flag will fly and on which buildings.
As I have stated, this issue cuts right across unionism. There are no "yes" and "no" camps on the flying of the Union flag within a constituent part of the kingdom. The constitutional settlement provided for by the Belfast agreement is within the United Kingdom and on the same basis as for Scotland and Wales. There can be no question, as was raised in some quarters at the weekend, of the Irish tricolour flying alongside the Union flag on British government and public buildings in Northern Ireland. That is a particularly dangerous notion which must be stamped on at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Irish tricolour is the national flag of another sovereign state. For it to fly alongside the Union flag on government buildings would signal to many Unionists and, indeed, Nationals, that a form of joint authority was in place in Northern Ireland. That certainly was not part of any agreement which I supported and for which many Unionists voted. The Secretary of State should be in no doubt that the national flag is the only flag which should fly over government and public buildings in Northern Ireland, and that means the Union flag.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, no one can view the impractical affairs of Northern Ireland without having great sympathy for those on the Government Front Bench who have to handle the responsibilities of that Province. However, my sympathies lie with those who have great anxiety about the instrument before us. I say that because it seems that we are enveloping the whole business of flag flying with a most extraordinary degree of legislation of one sort or another.
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