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These regulations make provisions for the flying of the Union flag, and other flags in certain circumstances, at government buildings in Northern Ireland. If approved by your Lordships, the regulations will place the flying of flags in Northern Ireland on the same basis as in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The political talks that led to the Belfast agreement were lengthy and difficult. It was a tremendous achievement, setting out the way forward for Northern Ireland, a new beginning founded on agreed principles and a shared vision of the future. The agreement represents an historic compromise in many complex and sensitive areas which have long been a source of division in Northern Ireland, and it sets out principles agreed by the parties which can assist in addressing such issues. But we were under no illusions that implementing the agreement would be an easy task. Some issues, of which the flying of flags is one, will take longer to resolve. The regulations laid before the House tonight are intended to provide an interim resolution of this issue until the Northern Ireland Executive can itself reach agreement.
In drawing up the regulations, the Secretary of State took account of the provisions of the Belfast agreement. One of the foundations of the agreement is the principle of consent, that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority of its people wish it to do so. All the parties to the Good Friday agreement accepted that principle. The Union flag is the flag of the United Kingdom. It is not a political symbol, nor is it the property of only one section of the community. It is entirely consistent with the principle of consent that the Union flag be flown at government buildings in Northern Ireland, as it is flown at government buildings throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The regulations provide for that--no more and no less.
The Secretary of State also had regard to another foundation stone of the agreement, the principle of equality. The principle of equality requires that there must be just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both traditions in Northern Ireland. The agreement recognises the legitimacy of both political aspirations and the right of both traditions to participate in the devolved institutions, so long as they are committed to peaceful and democratic means.
The regulations, therefore, go no further than is necessary to reflect practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. They require that flags are flown at government buildings in Northern Ireland on the days specified and on no other days. That means that the Union flag will not be flown on four days on which, prior to devolution, it was flown only in Northern Ireland--Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday and 12th of July. In making this reduction, the regulations respect the sentiments of the majority of both traditions in Northern Ireland who wish to work together to resolve differences and to build respect and mutual understanding.
In drawing up the draft regulations, the Secretary of State took into account the views of the political parties in Northern Ireland, and the view of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The flags order, which gave the Secretary of State power to make the regulations, was made on 17th May. When it became clear that the Northern Ireland Executive could not reach agreement on the flying of flags, the Secretary of State wrote to the Northern Ireland political parties on 10th July informing them that he was considering making regulations and seeking their views.
On 8th September the Secretary of State sent draft regulations to the Assembly, as he was required to do by the flags order. The Assembly set up an ad hoc committee to consider the draft regulations: its report was debated in the Assembly on 17th October and adopted as the Assembly's report. On 18th October the Presiding Officer wrote to the Secretary of State
The Secretary of State considered very carefully all the points made, but in the absence of any recommendations agreed by the Assembly, decided that it would be wrong to depart from the principle that the arrangements for flag flying in Northern Ireland should mirror practice in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Turning to the detail of the regulations, Regulation 2 requires that the Union flag is flown at the seven principal government buildings listed in Part I of the schedule on the days listed in Part II of the schedule. Those days are the same as those listed by Royal Command by Her Majesty issued on the Royal Prerogative and circulated to all UK departments by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. They do not include the four additional days on which the Union flag was flown from government buildings in Northern Ireland prior to devolution.
The Union flag must also be flown on the specified days at any other government building not listed in the schedule, where it was the practice to fly it on the specified days in the 12 months preceding 30th November 1999.
The regulations do not apply to Parliament buildings. The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order gives the Secretary of State power only to make regulations for government buildings, defined in the flags order as those buildings in Northern Ireland wholly or mainly occupied by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The regulations therefore do not cover Parliament buildings. It is for the Northern Ireland Assembly, through the Assembly Commission, to decide what arrangements are made for its own building. And it is entirely right that it should do so.
We do not believe that it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to regulate the manner in which flags should be flown over the seat of the devolved administration. Hitherto, there has been no complaint about the way in which this matter has been dealt with by the Assembly authorities.
Regulation 4 requires that the Royal Standard is flown at a government building during a visit by Her Majesty the Queen. As is the requirement in the rest of the UK, the Royal Standard is to be flown only while Her Majesty is in the building and must be flown in a superior position to the Union flag if the Union flag is also flown during the visit.
Regulation 6 requires that the Union flag is flown at half mast at the specified government buildings following the death of a member of the Royal Family, or of a serving or former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Regulation 7 provides that where the Union flag is required or permitted to be flown on the specified buildings on the specified days, it may also be flown at any other government buildings on the same day and in the same manner.
Regulation 8 allows the European flag to be flown alongside the Union flag on Europe Day, at a government building not specified in Part I of the schedule. It also allows the national flag of a visiting head of state to be flown alongside the Union flag on the occasion of a visit by a head of state other than Her Majesty, at a government building other than that or those being visited.
Regulation 9 prohibits the flying of flags on government buildings other than as provided for by the regulations. That means that the Union flag may not be flown on days which are not specified in the regulations.
I believe that these regulations are consistent both with the principles of the Belfast agreement and with the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, from both traditions, who wish to see flag flying handled in a sensitive, respectful and, above all, non-provocative way. The regulations properly recognise Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom, while respecting the concerns of those who hold to a different identity and aspiration. What we are seeking to achieve is mutual respect, both for the flying of the Union flag--and other flags as provided in the regulations--and for those who hold to a different political aspiration by limiting the flying of the Union flag to reflect practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. The flying of the Union flag to provoke others shows no respect for that flag.
We hope very much that the Northern Ireland Executive will be able to find an agreed solution to this issue, making these regulations unnecessary. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has already given an undertaking that, should the Executive reach agreement, he will revoke the regulations. I am happy to repeat that commitment to this House. The regulations are intended to help reduce tension over this issue, so that the Executive can agree a way forward. If the Executive succeeds in doing so, I shall be happy to return to this House to seek approval to revoke the Regulations. I commend the regulations to the House.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 23rd October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
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