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Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this order before the House tonight. On reflection, it is sad. But it is not disastrous. Devolution in Northern Ireland has happened; Stormont is up and running; and most people are pleased about that. The fact that on this occasion Stormont and the Assembly were unable to make this particularly difficult decision and bring forward a Bill to decide how and what flags should be flown is understandable to those of us who know and study Northern Ireland politics.
The only point I want to make, to be provocative, is that we only need look behind the first page to see who the mischief makers were. It is unfortunate that members of the republican movement took up ministerial posts within Stormont as part of the government process of part of Her Majesty's Kingdom but could not bring themselves to reach agreement with their colleagues on the flags issue. In the light of that I congratulate the Government, in particular the Secretary of State, on grasping this nettle and giving us the leadership we expect from Her Majesty's Government in laying down these draft regulations that we are debating tonight.
The regulations are right. They bring Northern Ireland in line with the United Kingdom. They ensure that the Union flag is flown on government buildings on occasions where in the rest of the United Kingdom it would be expected to be flown. They ensure that the Unionist population are quite clear and have no argument about the sovereignty of the government of the Province.
I pose two questions to the Minister. The first relates to the reason the Secretary of State in another place rather than the Assembly had to make these regulations. As the Minister said, Sinn Fein instructed its officials to pull down the Union flag from their buildings. Can the Minister say what sanctions are laid down should, despite this order being passed in your Lordships' House and through this Parliament, they continue on the same road?
The second question is more light hearted and I hope will be easier to answer. As I understand it, the government buildings--seven in all--where the Union flag is to be flown are clearly designated. Is there anything in the order which covers the movement of the institutions currently in those buildings? If a Union flag is currently flown on a building which houses, for instance, the DoE, and if for some reason in the future the DoE moves from that building, I hope that it will not leave the Union flag behind. I shall be interested to know whether that is covered.
In general, I welcome the order. Perhaps the best advice one can give--going into the detail in a light-hearted way--to those people managing public buildings where national flags are flown is to provide only one flagpole.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I rise from these Benches to support the order before us this evening. In the document we received from the Northern Ireland Assembly we again read of the deeply divided society, and it is tragic that what seems to many of us a simple matter of flying a flag is such a problem in Northern Ireland. But we know that it is.
We want to pay tribute to the Northern Ireland Assembly for having six meetings on the issue and tackling it. Unfortunately, it has not been able to come forward with a united recommendation. It is my belief that the issue would be better settled in Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland. I hope and trust that the regulations are an interim position.
I should like to think that flags could be constitutional; they could be diverse but unifying. We could examine where there could be unity. Could there be unity in the flag of St Patrick? Could there be unity in flying the flag of Europe? Could there be unity in a Northern Ireland flag? Indeed, would it be worth while for those in Northern Ireland to have a competition to design a flag under which people in Northern Ireland can unite?
Lord Rogan: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and many others in the Chamber, I am saddened that we have to discuss the flying of a national flag here tonight. The fact of when and where the national flag is flown in the United Kingdom should not be in issue. As one who lives in Northern Ireland, I deeply believe that it should not be decided by Northern Ireland.
The national flag should be a national issue--a constitutional issue--it should not be a devolved matter for a regional Minister. Why was it devolved? Was much thought given to the devolution of a quintessential national issue?
In any event, the parties who signed the Belfast agreement--unionists, nationalists, loyalists and republicans--accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. I am disappointed that some of those signatory parties have acted immaturely since the agreement with respect to their obligations to the agreement and have created issues such as flags.
That we are even discussing the matter tonight is made worse by the fact that there are flaws in the regulations themselves. Those who have shown a lack of maturity on this issue have deliberately misinterpreted the concept of "parity of esteem" in the Belfast agreement.
As the constitutional status is a fact, it is implicit that some visible manifestation of the constitutional status will exist. Flying the British flag over government buildings is a visible manifestation of Northern Ireland's constitutional status. That is implied in the agreement. Therefore, those parties lacking maturity should, in acting responsibly with respect to their commitments, both explicit and implicit, recognise that the flying of the union flag over government buildings on the same days as in other parts of the United Kingdom is part of what they agreed to.
As I have indicated, it is disappointing to find that these regulations are necessary, even more so that they are flawed. They are flawed in more than one respect. First, the regulations do not apply to Parliament buildings because of the restrictive definition of government buildings. It is also regrettable that the national flag will not be permitted to be flown above the seat of a devolved government within the United Kingdom.
Will the Minister give an assurance that if no agreement is reached on the issue he will review the situation within a fixed period of time? Otherwise, Northern Ireland will not be treated in the same manner as the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are, and will be, permitted to fly the flag of the nation, yet the Northern Ireland Assembly, one of the three devolved legislatures, will not.
Secondly, can the Minister confirm that effective sanctions will be exercised against Ministers if the flags are not flown in breach of the order or if additional flags are flown in breach of the order? Without an undertaking to use court action against those who breach the regulations, the regulations are a toothless tiger which some in Northern Ireland will always seek to exploit.
Thirdly, why is it that Schedule 1 lists particular buildings rather than simply the buildings where the Ministers operate from each department in the government? Surely it would be more logical to define the place where a flag is to be flown as the departmental headquarters rather than a particular building. The venue for the departmental headquarters may change over time.
Under the Belfast agreement, the principle of consent dictates Northern Ireland's constitutional position, which at this time is within the United Kingdom. Therefore, Northern Ireland shares the national flag of the United Kingdom. Government in Northern Ireland is devolved from the national Government here in Westminster. Northern Ireland has a British devolved government and any flag that represents it, as with the Government here in London, should be the Union flag. It is unfortunate that this matter is even being debated tonight.
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