HC Deb 25 October 2000 vol 355 cc334-55 10.26 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

I beg to move, That the draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, which were laid before this House on 23rd October, be approved. Last week in Northern Ireland saw the introduction of the first Budget presented by a local—as it happens, a nationalist—Minister at any time in the past 30 years. This week has seen a further historic development in Northern Ireland. For the first time, a common "Programme for Government" has been issued, providing a united vision of the future—of a stable, prosperous and descent society—and concrete Government actions to help achieve that, the like of which has not been seen in Northern Ireland before.

The "Programme for Government", presented jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is unique not only because of its far-reaching implications for every citizen in Northern Ireland, whatever their tradition, but because it enjoys the combined support of every Minister representing every party in the Executive—Unionist, nationalist and republican, pro and anti-agreement.

I suggest that the whole House will wish to applaud that signal achievement by the Executive. It shows that the Good Friday agreement is working; that inclusive government is working; and that politics in Northern Ireland is working. Every week for which politics works, violence is left further behind. We are seeing the shadow of the gunman which has been cast over Northern Ireland for decades now at long last fading away. It is partly because I want that progress to be maintained that I am introducing the regulations today.

We have to put old sores and provocations behind us. We cannot be constantly distracted from the proper business of government. We must find ways of resolving difficult issues in a sensitive and a balanced way. One such issue is that of flying the Union flag in Northern Ireland. The reason why that is troubling in Northern Ireland and not in Scotland or Wales, for example, is obvious. Northern Ireland is uniquely torn between two rival aspirations—to remain part of the United Kingdom, and to become part of Ireland.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mandelson

I shall continue if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, and make a little more progress.

I readily acknowledge the legitimacy of both those aspirations in Northern Ireland. The whole point of the Good Friday agreement is that Unionists and nationalists can participate together in government in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland while remaining every inch a Unionist, a nationalist or, indeed, a republican, as they wish, as long as they do so embracing peaceful and democratic means. This is the foundation of the new political dispensation that is being created in Northern Ireland.

Central to that dispensation is the principle of consent. The will of the people in Northern Ireland will govern its constitutional status—not guns or bullying or intimidation, but the will of the people, freely expressed.

That is why the participants in the Good Friday agreement explicitly accept that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland…is to maintain the Union and accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish. The meaning of that is unambiguous. It is that while there are—legitimately—two traditions, two national aspirations and two cultural identities in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, and where a national flag is flown, it therefore follows that that flag should be the flag of the United Kingdom.

It follows that the principle of consent which governs this process should receive more than lip service in Northern Ireland, as, too, must another cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement—the principle of equality: there must be just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both traditions.

There can be no second-class citizens in Northern Ireland, and there will not be. That is why we are doing what we are doing, reflecting parity of esteem between the traditions across the board in relation to the range of Government activity, the policing reforms, the criminal justice reforms and every other aspect of society in which identity becomes important. It is why, too, the regulations that I am introducing tonight have been drawn up in a sensitive way, and why, since May, I have consulted all the parties and offered every opportunity to the Executive and then to the Assembly to reach a consensus of their own on flag flying that would remove the need for me to make any regulations at all.

The Executive could not reach agreement—nor could the multi-party Assembly ad hoc committee which produced a report that was debated by the Assembly on 17 October. For this reason—and I regret it—it is not possible to draw up regulations which all the parties would welcome. However, the door remains open. If, in the coming weeks and months, the Executive is able to agree a way forward, I will happily revoke the regulations, with the approval of Parliament, to make way for a solution which enjoys the support of all parties. However, my firm judgment is that, in the absence of such a decision, to leave to individual Ministers the decision about when and how the Union flag will be flown, in some cases ignoring past custom, with practice differing from building to building, would be singularly unwise. That was the situation when devolution began and it simply brought needless and undesirable political strife, dividing the Executive and the parties at a time and in circumstances where their unity on other more important issues is very much needed.

That is why I am taking the initiative tonight, but I stress that it is a balanced one. The regulations are sensitive to the needs of each tradition and they are grounded in the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

The Union flag is not a party political or sectional symbol, representing one side of the community only. It may have become a political football for some who want to play politics, but for the overwhelming mass of people in Northern Ireland, it is not such a party political or sectional symbol. It will continue to fly over designated Government buildings in Northern Ireland on the same basis as it does throughout the United Kingdom, without extra days tacked on for Northern Ireland as happened previously.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

What is my right hon. Friend's view of the perception that the issue of the display of flags ought to be subject to periodic review—the argument of the Social Democratic and Labour party?

Mr. Mandelson

I have said that if the Executive and the Assembly can find agreement and come forward with their own solution to the issue, I will happily bow to that agreement and accept that solution. In those circumstances, I would happily revoke the regulations and invite the House to approve that. However, if I were to introduce what might be known as a sunset clause for the regulations—to have them operate for a year and then disappear, allowing the debate to be opened up and the argument to begin all over again—I would not be doing a service to the Executive and the progress of devolution in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The Secretary of State has said that he is seeking to avoid ambiguity. Is he confirming that the flag will be flown on all those buildings where previously it was flown on specified days prior to devolution? If so, could he explain why there are seven specified headquarters buildings and no reference to the Stormont Parliament buildings, where the flag was traditionally flown prior to devolution?

Mr. Mandelson

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I would like to go through each of the regulations in turn. As I do so, it will become clear what I am proposing tonight for the House to approve. I will take up that issue as I go through them.

It is important for the House to note that I am not ordering any particular Minister of any particular party to raise the Union flag on any personal or particular flagpole. The designation does not reach to that sort of detail or specification. It applies to Government buildings—that is an important point—that contain, in the majority, civil servants working for the Government.

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. The Union flag must also be flown on the specified days at any other Government building not listed in the schedule—this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs)—where it was the practice to fly it on the specified days in the 12 months preceding 30 November 1999. That is a permissive regulation: it is not obligatory. I stress that it applies to Government buildings where it was the practice to fly the flag in that period that I have described.

The regulations do not apply to Parliament buildings, which was the other point raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim. The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 gives me power to make regulations only for Government buildings. Such buildings are defined in that order, which was made last May, as those buildings in Northern Ireland wholly or mainly occupied by the Northern Ireland civil service. I therefore do not have power to make regulations covering Parliament buildings.

In addition, I do not believe that it would be appropriate for me, as 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. Consequently, and quite rightly, it will be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide what arrangements are to be made for its own building. I hope that the House will agree that that is an appropriate course for me to have taken.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether equivalent buildings in other parts of the United Kingdom fly the flag on the same days as those listed in the order?

Mr. Mandelson

Yes, there is consistency between the days designated for Northern Ireland and those designated for the rest of the United Kingdom. Those days are designated by the royal prerogative and promulgated through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Extra days used to apply to Northern Ireland that did not apply to the UK, such as new year's day, Easter Sunday, and 12 July. Those extra Northern Ireland days have been deleted from the designation, in order to create consistency between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Removing 12 July from the list seemed to be the sensitive course of action.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Will the Secretary of State touch on those other areas where it is possible that differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK might arise? In the rest of Great Britain, there will occasions on which the royal prerogative will be exercised to order that flags be flown at half mast, such as on the death of a foreign head of state. However, the regulations contain no such provision—nor any provision to cover special occasions that might fall outside what the order prescribes. How will the regulations deal with such matters—or will special regulations have to be made for any special events such as those I have set out?

Mr. Mandelson

I suppose that there must have been an occasion in the past when our national flag was lowered to honour the sovereign of another country. It would be open to me to introduce such a variation, but I think that people in Northern Ireland would expect the practice followed in other parts of the United Kingdom to be honoured in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the regulations will allow people to relax a little about the subject of flag flying, and take the unexpected developments that have been described more in their stride. Every hoisting of the Union flag would not then be a major constitutional issue about which people feel that they must take to the proverbial barricades to fight their respective positions.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will the Secretary of State say who decides whether the Union flag is flown over this House? Would that decision be comparable to the decision in Stormont?

Mr. Mandelson

I am sure that hon. Members make that decision. If we do not, I am sure that Mr. Speaker is able to exercise his discretion on the matter. Failing that, I am sure that there is a Father of the House somewhere waiting to reintroduce his discretion in this matter, as in all others.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Secretary of State may be unduly optimistic about taking all the heat out of the flags issue in Northern Ireland, but I hope that he is right. The right hon. Gentleman referred to Government buildings used by the Northern Ireland civil service. Can he confirm that the regulations have no effect on buildings used by the armed forces in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mandelson

No, they have no effect on them whatever. Those are British bases and camps providing facilities for the British Army, and over those bases it is appropriate that the British flag should fly.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The right hon. Gentleman has set out clearly how, on the 17 days in the year that the regulations specify, there is a requirement to fly the Union flag. Departments are under the control and authority of Ministers. What happens if a Minister instructs his officials not to fly the flag?

Mr. Mandelson

I hope very much that it would not even occur to a Minister in the devolved Administration to ask any civil servant to ignore Parliament's wishes or to disobey the law. I am not asking individual Ministers to take any decision or action in relation to the flying of the flag over buildings which they might occupy, along with other Ministers and other Departments in the same Administration. Just as I am not asking them to take any initiative or do anything, I hope that they, in turn, will not take any initiative or action to discourage others from complying with the law. Of course, in the unhappy eventuality of the matter needing to be tested in and enforced by the courts, that will have to be done.

Regulation 3 allows the Union flag to be flown at a Government building during a visit by a head of state other than Her Majesty the Queen. 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 United Kingdom, 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 it 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—I hope that this is not too provocative—to be flown alongside the Union flag on Europe day, at a Government building not specified in part 1 of the schedule. I am not seeking to be divisive or destabilising by making this suggestion. The regulation 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 at Government buildings other than as provided for by the regulations. The Union flag will not, therefore, be flaunted unnecessarily.

Some nationalists have argued that the Good Friday agreement requires either the use of both the British and Irish flags or no flags at all. They argue that if they cannot have them both, they should have neither. I respect that view, but I really cannot accept it. It is worth recalling what the agreement says about the use of symbols for public purposes. All the participants acknowledged its sensitivity and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner that promotes mutual respect rather than division. That means not that there should be no symbols—that is not what the Good Friday agreement says or is about—but that their use should be managed with sensitivity and respect for both sides of the community.

Had I brought forward regulations today that required the flying of the Union flag at all times come what may, or on significantly more occasions than one finds in other parts of the United Kingdom, or if I was suggesting that it should be flown in the heart of strongly nationalist areas, I should indeed have been guilty of insensitivity to the minority tradition.

But I am not doing so, and I have to say, as I have said before—the point is worth repeating in the House—that there is no point, while addressing nationalist concerns, as we are quite rightly doing, in simply replacing an alienated nationalist tradition with an alienated Unionist one. Unionists' identity and their sense of Britishness needs to be respected in Northern Ireland as much as nationalists' identity. It is in order to achieve that that I am, among other things, bringing forward these regulations.

In conclusion, I believe that what Unionists want, and what these regulations achieve, is that the national flag should be flown over Government buildings in the same respectful, common-or-garden, low-key way as it is flown in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is the sensible approach and I welcome the mature recognition by the Ulster Unionist party, in its submission to the Assembly's ad hoc committee, that there is no need or desire to flaunt the Union flag as such.

What I am doing tonight is not—and should not be seen as—an insult to nationalists, because it is not intended as such. It is a neutral, matter-of-fact, reflection of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, for which the agreement provides.

Our aim must be to reduce the controversy that attends the flying of the Union flag, not to stoke it. That is what these regulations should do when the heat subsides, and I hope that the House will support them on that basis.

10.52 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

First, I strongly endorse what the Secretary of State said about the devolved Executive. I hope that it gave pleasure to everyone in the House to see that Executive working effectively and undertaking the difficult task of trying to balance its budget, by taking the tough decisions that have to be taken by politicians elsewhere—balancing difficult budget decisions in different Departments. I hope that the devolved Administration—by way of an Assembly and an Executive—will continue for a long time. I hope that there will not be people who signed up to the Belfast agreement but do not honour their obligations, thereby putting the Executive under pressure. However, that is a debate for another day.

Secondly, I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me a little advance notice of the order. That was much appreciated.

May I take you back, Mr. Speaker, to a debate on this very subject that we held earlier in the Session? I remind you that I clearly said that my party believes that Northern Ireland should be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to flags. I am broadly happy that the orders that the Secretary of State is laying before the House take into account a natural consistency. Therefore I welcome them. If, by any chance, there is a Division on them tonight, those of my colleagues who are present will support the Government.

It is wrong that the issue of flags should become irrational. I very much endorse the Secretary of State's point that people should be more relaxed and flexible about flags. Flags should be used to celebrate or, at a time of bereavement, to express sadness—as happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

My reading of the order—unless I have misunderstood it—is that Northern Ireland is brought entirely into line with England, Scotland and Wales, with the obvious exception that St. Patrick's day is recognised, as the other saints' days are recognised in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Having said all that, let me pose a few questions, which I hope might be answered if the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wind up the debate.

I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said in response to the very legitimate question asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about sanctions if the flags were not flown. I, like the right hon. Gentleman, would deeply regret that and hope that it would never happen, but I was pleased to note that he would be prepared to take action in the courts if need be. I hope that that is not necessary, but it is important that that is seen as part of this debate, and that must be right.

On an even more technical note, the Secretary of State has listed some Government buildings where the flag will be flown on appropriate days. I should like an undertaking that that list will be kept under constant review, because obviously Ministries will be moved and other key buildings will be transferred from time to time, and his list will become irrelevant and dated. That is very important.

I thought that the intervention by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) was also very relevant, because I think that we are proud that on appropriate dates the flag flies from this Palace of Westminster, and it seems to me appropriate that it should fly from Stormont as well. Under the definition, of course, Stormont is not a Government building, because I think that the definition of a Government building is simply that the majority of people working there are Government employees, whereas the majority of people in the Parliament obviously work for the Parliament rather than the Government.

I understand the Secretary of State's reticence. We have a devolved Administration, and he does not want to interfere unduly. However, I hope that a message is sent from this debate to our friends and colleagues in the devolved Assembly and the Executive, that it would be appropriate—as happens, I believe, in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—that the flags are flown on appropriate days.

My final point, and final quibble—I admit that these are merely quibbles on detail—concerns the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised, about when flags are flown at half mast on occasions other than the passing away of members of the royal family and serving and past Prime Ministers.

In the past couple of weeks, we witnessed the tragedy of the premature death of Donald Dewar. We noted that, rightly, flags were flown at half mast both at the Scottish Parliament and, I think, in Government buildings here in London. That was absolutely right and proper. Heaven forbid that our present First Minister, or future First Ministers, should pass away in office in Northern Ireland, but if that should be the case it would be absolutely appropriate if the same happened, and I think that it would be appreciated if somehow, as a result of this debate, it was recognised that that should happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield raised a point about the death of heads of state in office. Let us be mildly controversial and suppose—again, heaven forbid—that the President of the Irish Republic were to pass away. I think that if that happened, it would be hugely inappropriate if flags were not flown at half mast. It would not be understood in Dublin and, frankly, it would not be understood by the overwhelming majority of my constituents and the overwhelming majority of people in both communities in Northern Ireland. I hope that, in the relaxed manner that the Secretary of State wants flags to be flown, people will recognise that flags should be flown when the head of state of a friendly neighbour or a friendly partner in the European Union, or in NATO or elsewhere, passes away.

That is the non-controversial part, but of course I am always very cautious when looking at any order that the Secretary of State brings forward. He would expect nothing less.

As the Secretary of State surmised, I was slightly worried about his explanatory note, which said: The European flag must be flown in addition to the Union flag on Europe day.

Mr. Mandelson

May be.

Mr. MacKay

No. It is "must be", I am afraid—I am quoting from the right hon. Gentleman's note—in the case of the seven Government buildings; but the European flag "may" be flown from the remaining Government buildings. Being a conspiracy theorist, I was naturally convinced that our openly Europhile Secretary of State was defying the Chancellor and the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), and was pushing his European case further. I regret to report that I was wrong, and that that is the practice throughout the United Kingdom, so the order complies with my consistent desire that Northern Ireland should be treated absolutely the same as the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State rightly paraphrased the provisions of the order, because it would have taken rather a long time to go through everything. However, there is a happy ending, because the explanatory note in full states: The European flag must be flown in addition to the Union flag on Europe day at any of those buildings which have more than one flagpole. My advice to those who are concerned about the issue is to make sure that they have only one flagpole.

On that more light-hearted note, may I again say to the Secretary of State that we strongly support the order. We think that it makes common sense. I hope that it will take some of the sting out of the issue of flags and emblems. I also commend the order to the House.

11 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

It has been said that in the sweep of history, this is not a great issue, and I am sure that that is so. Equally, it is not a minor matter. Despite the relaxed, calm and understated way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his case for the order, it is a serious matter that will cause considerable problems and for which there is a hidden agenda.

A headline in The Guardian today states: Sinn Fein will be told to fly the flag. The report continues: Sinn Fein ministers in Northern Ireland are to be forced to fly the union flag. An article in The Daily Telegraph today states: Peter Mandelson prompted the fury of Sinn Fein last night by ordering the Union flag to be flown. I shall return to that particular spin shortly, because I do not think that it was addressed to Members of this House or to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but to another meeting that will take place in Belfast on Saturday. I will refer to that later.

I wish to deal with some of the points that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made. His statement said that we were treating Northern Ireland the same as the rest of the United Kingdom, but the first point to be made is that Northern Ireland is not the same as the rest of the United Kingdom. Otherwise this order would not exist. As I understand it, there is not a flags and emblems order before the Scottish Assembly, and even if it had the power to legislate on such matters, I do not imagine that there would be one before the Welsh Assembly. I also understand that the saltire, the symbol of the Scottish nation, is flown over Government buildings in Scotland and the dragon of Wales is flown over Government buildings in Wales. That immediately raises the question as to why the Irish tricolour, the symbol of the Irish nation, is not flown to represent those members of the Irish nation in Northern Ireland who would like to see it flown over their Government buildings.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara

I will not give way, because there is very little time, and if I did, it might stir up other Members who might want to make observations later.

My right hon. Friend sought to pray in aid the principle of consent, but consent suggests that the parties agree. As far as I understand it, the only parties that agree to the proposal are the Administration and various types of Ulster Unionist, not the nationalist groups in Northern Ireland. They do not consent to the proposal. My right hon. Friend quoted the Good Friday agreement, which states: All participants 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. What could do more to create division than the main symbol of one faction in Northern Ireland—albeit, at the moment, the majority faction—being flown over Government buildings on particular dates, when the flag of the other faction is not to be flown?

Mr. Wilshire

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara

No, I will not. I have already said that I want to finish my points so that others can make theirs.

Paragraph 5 of the Good Friday agreement does not back up what my right hon. Friend has said. My right hon. Friend said that he discussed matters with the parties, the Assembly, the Executive and the ad hoc committee, but he did not discuss the matter with a number of organisations that might have been able to give him some other advice, such as the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission, which, under the legislation emanating from the Good Friday agreement, are specifically designed to deal with those particular matters. They were not consulted. I do not believe that the Civic Forum was consulted, and I have no idea whether the Irish Government were consulted, but it would be nice to know. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to say when he replies.

My right hon. Friend also made a great point about his role as the sovereign power, and spoke of the need, as a member of the sovereign power, to act impartially. Under the section which deals with constitutional issues, the Good Friday agreement says: 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 and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities. The regulations meet those criteria with regard to only one community. They do not make the point, nor do they accept—I come back to this point again—that the buildings are Government buildings of the devolved Assembly, representing both communities in Northern Ireland. If the Union flag should fly, the tricolour should also fly. If the tricolour does not fly, neither should the Union flag.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara

I did not give way to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), whom I regard as a friend, as I do the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), so I shall not give way to him, either.

I come now to the spin on this matter. Why have the regulations been introduced with such enormous speed at this particular time? The answer is because the Unionist council is meeting next week, and this is another bone to be thrown to the Unionists to try to support the position of the First Minister. [Interruption.] The dogs are barking. My right hon. Friend is often quoted as saying that he regards the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) as indispensable. One of the things that many older politicians on all sides have said to all of us at one time or another is that the cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Therefore, we should be looking carefully at the policy that is being followed.

The First Minister is fighting hard to maintain the Good Friday agreement, to try to keep it going, to try to keep the Assembly going and to try to keep the Executive going. But for how long does one continue to make concessions on such matters, keeping the First Minister in place but unstitching the agreement?

Before the summer recess, when we were discussing the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which arose from the Patten report, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State tabled an amendment on the nature of the work of the RUC and persuaded Labour Members to support it, in some cases even against their better judgment. Before we had debated that, we suddenly had an announcement from the Minister of State that the amendment was to be withdrawn. That was done to bolster the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the leader of the Unionist party.

We can go on and on doing that. As a Unionist poet said, as long as we are paying the danegeld, we will never get rid of the Dane. If we continue to behave in that way, we will not strengthen the First Minister; we will undermine his position more and more. My advice to the Unionist council is to keep him there and to keep him under pressure, because Unionists will get concessions until the Government realise that by making those concessions, they are losing the other part of the community. I do not believe that they want to do that, any more than they want to lose the Unionist part of the community.

I shall not divide the House on the order tonight. What other colleagues do is up to them. The order is very much on the slippery slope. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) used to speak of "saving private Trimble", and that is what is happening again tonight.

11.11 pm
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

It is always amusing to listen to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Lest the Secretary of State leave the House with the impression that all is rosy in the garden in Northern Ireland, may I bring a dose of reality to the debate before I deal with the specifics of the order?

Although we have devolution and we welcome the opportunity for locally elected representatives to have a greater say in the government of Northern Ireland, there are major fundamental problems with the process that must be addressed. Those problems include the failure of the terrorist organisations to deliver the peace that the people of Northern Ireland desire, and the failure of those organisations to decommission their illegal weapons two and a half years after the Belfast agreement.

The hon. Member for Hull, North spoke of concessions, but if he took time to weigh up the concessions made on both sides, he might conclude that the concessions made

to the republican movement significantly outweigh any concessions made to Unionists. There can be no greater concession that a society can make than to release on to the streets the murderers who are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes.

If the hon. Gentleman reflects on what he regards as a concession in the form of the order, and sets that alongside the fact that the IRA has had all its prisoners released from prison, he will conclude that the balance is, indeed, unbalanced. In respect of the process of which the order is, I suppose, a part, there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope that the Government will use the same haste as that with which they introduced the order to tackle those problems, especially the violence that continues in Northern Ireland.

With reference to the order, an argument has been advanced by the nationalist parties—the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein—and indeed by the hon. Member for Hull, North that in addition to the flying of the Union flag, the tricolour should also be flown on the specified Government buildings. However, Northern Ireland is not part of the Irish Republic; it has no constitutional link with the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The full title of our nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the hon. Member for Hull, North checks his passport, he will discover that that is the case.

The Irish tricolour, as the flag of a foreign nation, has no place on the Government buildings of part of the United Kingdom. Only the Union flag, which is the flag of our nation, should be flown as a specified flag.

Mr. Wilshire

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that flying the flag of a sovereign foreign nation over part of the United Kingdom would be offensive not only to the people of Northern Ireland, but to the people of England, Wales and Scotland? We would find it a monstrous outrage if a foreign flag were flown over part of our country.

Mr. Donaldson

The hon. Gentleman's comments speak for themselves.

The hon. Member for Hull, North referred to the practice in Scotland and Wales. However, they are integral parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, the saltire flies alongside the Union flag on the Parliament buildings because the saltire is the flag of Scotland. The tricolour is not the flag of Northern Ireland. If the hon. Member for Hull, North wishes a flag that represents Northern Ireland to fly alongside the Union flag, we have our own flag. If he wants to pursue that matter, I am happy to support him. However, I do not support flying the Irish tricolour on an equal basis with the Union flag. There is no joint authority in Northern Ireland, and the Irish tricolour should not be flown.

The Secretary of State said that there had been no complaint about the failure to fly the Union flag on Parliament Buildings. That is not correct. If he reads the submissions by the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the regulations, he will realise that four parties—the Ulster Unionist party, the Progressive Unionist party and the United Unionist Assembly party—called for them to be extended to include Parliament buildings, Stormont. It is therefore not correct to say that the issue is not a matter of concern to parties in Northern Ireland.

Future Government buildings constitute another matter of concern. Let us suppose that one of the Departments relocates to a new building. Will the Secretary of State have to introduce a new order to specify that building for the flying of the Union flag? The matter cannot be covered retrospectively, and I hope that the Secretary of State will address the issue.

I support the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on sanctions. Without effective sanctions, the regulations are toothless. The problem that gave rise to them was the failure of Sinn Fein-IRA Ministers to fly the Union flag. There would be no regulations and no debate if that were not the case. Yet the regulations do not provide for sanctions against Ministers who fail to comply with the requirement to fly the Union flag on their departmental buildings.

Mr. Peter Robinson

As well as not complying with the requirement, Ministers might also breach regulation 9 and have the Irish tricolour flown alongside the Union flag. Ministers can direct officials. Again, there are no sanctions against that.

Mr. Donaldson

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Secretary of State says that he cannot conceive of circumstances in which a Minister would compel a civil servant to disobey the regulations. He does not understand the nature of the Minister of Education. If he reads the record of the Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly, he may take a rather different view. The organisation to which that Minister is connected has not been reluctant in the past to bring pressure to bear on civil servants, and the Secretary of State knows that.

The regulations cover only what are described as "government buildings". There are many other public buildings in Northern Ireland where there is controversy about the flying of the flag. We shall have to examine this issue in more detail in future. It is the Secretary of State's desire that the regulations will settle the flags issue, but that is to underestimate the problem. I think it will continue to be a problem. There may be a need in future to make regulations governing the flying of the Union flag on other public buildings, sad though that is. I wish that that were not the case. It is sad that we have to pass legislation—for Northern Ireland especially—to regulate the flying of our national flag. The flag should be flown without the need for regulations.

There is a lack of maturity, sadly, on the part of some who fail to recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's constitutional position. That has brought us to the point where regulation is necessary. We welcome the closing of some of the loopholes by the regulations, but considerable problems remain. I hope that the Secretary of State will take them on board.

11.22 pm
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that time has moved on from the scenario set out by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). The Belfast agreement was the foundation of a new political dispensation. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we need to put old sores and provocations behind us. We need to consider things in a sensitive and balanced way.

At the same time, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). It is clear from the Belfast agreement that on constitutional issues it demands parity of esteem. It is not acceptable for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to describe the Union flag as not being seen as sectional to certain members of the community in Northern Ireland. It is clear that it is seen as such and as representative of only one tradition.

Unfortunately, the regulations are something of a cop-out. They are clearly a sop before the Unionist council this weekend. They are an almost trivial sop. If the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) is to be deselected, I do not believe that regulations of this sort will save him at this stage. As we go down this slippery slope of agreement and sop after sop, at some stage we should return to the principles of the Belfast agreement, which was based on parity of esteem.

The regulations will lead to almost ludicrous manipulations of legislation. The detail of the regulations is as follows: The Union flag shall be flown at…government buildings. We are demanding that the Union flag shall be able to fly over the departments of nationalist Ministers on St. Patrick's day. It is almost farcical.

Regulation 4 provides that where there are two flagpoles, one for the Union flag and the other for the European flag. What if there are three flagpoles? If my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) were speaking, he would be taking the regulations to pieces with his wit. We can fly the tricolour only if the Taoiseach is visiting. Does that require a daily visit from the Taoiseach? It seems that one flag must not be flown above the other. Will an official be measuring flagpoles to ascertain at which height the flag will be flown?

Sanctions are important. Will there be sanctions against anyone flying the tricolour on a Government building? Are we returning to the days of making it illegal to fly the tricolour on certain buildings? Will there be a criminal sanction against a Minister, a disciplinary sanction or a civil action? An unnecessary debate is having to take place because we are not abiding by the principles of the Belfast agreement. It is clear to me that if we extrapolate from the Belfast agreement the principle of parity of esteem, we should treat symbols equally. Therefore, if flags are to be flown, there should be the two flags of both traditions or neither.

11.24 pm
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

We get more good news than bad from the Province these days, and the IRA's statement today is circumstantially encouraging. [Interruption.] I have always been an optimist, and I reserve the right to say at some point, "I told you so."

It is worth bearing in mind the fact that, while we talk about flags, Northern Irish politicians in Stormont are talking about the health service, social services and education. To use the phrase of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), while we talk about process, in Northern Ireland they talk about government, and that is a healthy step forward.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) rightly said that the Government seem to be trying to balance the concerns of the two main communities in Northern Ireland. That is the right approach. It is sensible to support the order, because it returns us to the situation pre-devolution. We must recognise the work done by the flags committee in the Assembly, but it is unfortunate that it was unable to reach an agreement on the issue. Naturally enough it has required the Secretary of State to make a ruling. The order is well balanced and it should be viewed as the best way forward, although by no means the last word. The last word would be for us not to be discussing this matter.

There is a need to promote shared symbols in the Province rather than symbols that perpetuate division. The Union flag is being used as symbol of a division, and that is slightly to miss the point of this regulation. The Secretary of State was right to say that it tries to show genuine sensitivity towards both sides.

It will come as no surprise to the House to hear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the provision for the European flag to be flown alongside the Union flag on Europe day, because it is a symbol that unites us all. [Interruption.] I simply muse that it unites us all, although certain groups are united against Europe. I hope that the hon. Member who winds up for the official Opposition will clarify whether it is their policy to oppose the flying of the European flag in principle for the entire term of the next Parliament but not after that.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

For ever.

Mr. Öpik

Thank you, for those who understood the point.

On a more serious note, as I listened to the hon. Member for Hull, North talking about the tricolour in the same breath as he talked about the flags used in Wales, Scotland and England, it struck me as more appropriate in that context to refer to St. Patrick's flag, which is a more like-for-like comparison of identity for the Province within the United Kingdom. I am very sensitive to the point that he made about the tricolour itself.

We must recognise that the Good Friday agreement referred to Northern Ireland as a continuing entity within the United Kingdom and not as an entity within the south of Ireland or as part of the island of Ireland. We need to be careful about how we assess the use of the tricolour.

As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) implied, it would be possible to fly the tricolour in perpetuity if the Taoiseach chose to have his residence in Belfast. I suspect that he will not make that sacrifice.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik

I may be proved wrong.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I am amazed at the ignorance in this place. The Taoiseach is not the head of state, but that may be another revolutionary move planned for Dublin.

Mr. Öpik

I stand corrected, but I stand by the points that I made in principle, at least for the term of the next Parliament.

The problem is that the Government are attempting to prescribe an attitude. The comment of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about whether, under the regulation, we can honour the death of foreign heads of state by flying the Union flag at half mast shows that there will still be loopholes that could be used by those who are determined to make it difficult for the order to work. In essence we are codifying an etiquette which, although it applies to the whole United Kingdom, we have been forced to put in black and white for Northern Ireland.

I am a realist. I think that while symbolically the proposal should encourage Unionist Members sitting behind me, it should not be seen as the final word on the matter. I shall return to that at the end of my speech.

The hon. Member for Hull, North speculated that this might be a sop to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Perhaps that is true to an extent, but the Taoiseach himself, Bertie Ahern, has said that he regards the right hon. Gentleman as a pivotal character in the development of the peace process. I know that the hon. Member for Hull, North agrees; I do not question that. I simply say that sometimes friends of the process need a helping hand. I do not think that there will be any real losers from the regulations. There will simply be a respectful and sensitive recognition of something that I also interpret the Good Friday agreement to mean—the rightful identity of Northern Ireland, for the time being at least, in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley takes a rather hard line. I hope he does not mind my saying that, but it may surprise some Members. The term "hard line" is, of course, relative. I regard the hon. Gentleman as a friend and reserve the right to go on bending his ear in the Tea Room and elsewhere, but I hope that he will consider taking a slightly softer line at the weekend—although that is obviously a matter for him. I think that the regulations may tackle some issues that I have heard him raise in the past. Let me suggest, if I may be so bold, that they represent something of a middle way in the flags debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "A third way!"] Or a third way. To that extent, they suggest the possibility of a certain empathy between the two sides in the debate.

The Secretary of State confirmed that he would revoke, or seek to revoke, the regulations if a consensual solution were found in Northern Ireland. I consider that to be a sensible and encouraging step, because it leaves the way open for Northern Ireland to resolve the flags issue, even if it has not done so yet. However, it also underlines the cold fact that, although the regulations attempt to cure the symptoms, they cannot cure the cause because the cause is an attitude. However much we debate these matters in the Chamber, it seems to be a cold, hard but very real fact that, ultimately, if we want to resolve the issues that underlie this evening's debate, it is up to the politicians of Northern Ireland because only they can cure the cause.

11.32 pm
Rev. William McCrea (South Antrim)

It is an honour for me to return to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for South Antrim. However, the circumstances that brought about the by-election cause pain in the hearts of many right hon. and hon. Members.

The late Clifford Forsythe had represented South Antrim since 1983. He entered the House when I first entered it myself. During my fourteen and a half years here previously as Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster, Clifford was a personal friend. We shared many cherished principles in our hearts.

During the election campaign, I was deeply moved by how often, on the doorsteps, Clifford was mentioned with great love and deep affection, and by the respect in which he was held both in and outside the South Antrim constituency. That is further eloquent testimony to his integrity as a Member of Parliament. Tonight, I salute his memory, and place on record my genuine respect and affection for him. I trust that my efforts to defend traditional Unionist values will ensure that his battle for the cause of democracy lives on. I again record my sympathy for his beloved widow and family circle, and assure them of my Christian prayers and love.

South Antrim is the heart of traditional Unionism, and my election has sent a clear, unambiguous message to those in Government—the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and those in authority. I promise my constituents that I shall endeavour to represent them faithfully in the mother of Parliaments. Irrespective of their background, I will give them support and assistance with their everyday problems.

I have listened to the debate with interest. There are not many things on which the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and I agree. He has a very different perspective from me. However, I agree with one aspect of his speech. I do not think that the Secretary of State can expect the people of Northern Ireland to be gullible. The timing of the debate has more to do with the future of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) than with anything else.

The London and Dublin Governments are running around like headless chickens seeking to find ways and means to bolster a situation and an agreement that the majority of Unionists firmly believe is fundamentally flawed and therefore reject. There is no misunderstanding the meaning of the result of my election to the House. I have no doubt that the IRA statement, the alleged proposed visit of the Prime Minister to Belfast and a few announcements attempting to create the illusion of progress will aim to buy off the Unionist electorate. It should be remembered—once bitten, twice shy.

The proposals in relation to the flying of the Union flag, the national flag of Northern Ireland, are wrong both in principle and in practice. They are born out of constitutional ambiguity, which arose out of the signing of the Belfast agreement. Regardless of the view that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and those who support him propagate, the failure of the Union flag to fly over Government buildings is a clear indication of the many issues that the Belfast agreement left unresolved. If the agreement had truly secured the Union and brought acceptance on behalf of the nationalist population about the status of Northern Ireland, there would be no need for the legislation and for the debate.

It is interesting. We have heard from the hon. Member for Hull, North about the anger and frustration in the nationalist-republican community about the flying of flags. Where are the two Members for republican Sinn Fein-IRA who have been elected to the House? I do not see them. Where are the Social Democratic and Labour Members who feel passionately about the flags issue? I do not see any of them. However, I believe, deep in my heart, that they thought that the issue and the cause would be duly represented by the hon. Member for Hull, North and possibly by the Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, constitutional certainty does not exist. Even more regrettably for the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, the so-called cure to the problem of the refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA Ministers to fly the flag may be worse than the problem. If we clear away the spin by the Secretary of State and leader of the Ulster Unionist party, some fundamental problems remain with the legislation.

It is interesting that, despite the recommendations and report of the Northern Ireland Assembly, no significant change was made to the draft order. It is yet another exercise in spin without substance. The Secretary of State did not find it necessary to make any significant amendment to the legislation—neither to change the political balance of the order, nor to cover any loopholes in the legislation. So much for the sensitivity of the Secretary of State for the wounded Unionist population of the Province.

What are the problems that remain? What other part of the United Kingdom would make it illegal to fly the national flag on all but a small number of days? Members will notice that regulation 9 says: Prohibition on the flying of flags other than in accordance with the Regulations. Except as provided by these Regulations, no flag shall he flown at any government building— that includes the Union flag— at any time. In what other part of the United Kingdom is that a reality? That is what the legislation does. It is not legislation to provide for the flying of the flag, but primarily legislation that bans the flying of the national flag over Government buildings. It does not provide for the flying of the flag over Stormont. The buildings over which the flag is required to be flown are limited and, worse, subject to being sidelined. For example, the headquarters of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure does not appear to be on the list of buildings over which the flag has to fly. Indeed, the regulations can be avoided if the headquarters of other Departments change or a new building is established. The list of buildings is frozen in time. It is a recipe for the flying of the flag to wither away over time. New buildings are specifically excluded from consideration.

This is a farce. What sort of legislation is it that it can so easily be avoided and evaded? It is legislation that will pass the test of humouring a section of the community in the short term, while forcing Sinn Fein-IRA to do nothing in the long term. This is the type of solution that other hon. Members may be used to—strong on illusion, weak on reality.

Such is the limitation on the flying of the Union flag that even 12 July is excluded. I regard that as a calculated insult to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. No doubt, the convenient justification—we have heard it—is the practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. That may be a justification if we in Northern Ireland had all the same rights and rules as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Can the Secretary of State assist me in understanding where else in the United Kingdom it is illegal to fly the Union flag? What other part of the United Kingdom has a prohibition on the flying of the Union flag on Government buildings? What other Parliament would pass legislation to declare legality for the flying of its national flag and, at the same time, declare it illegal to fly it for 348 days a year? This is Northern Ireland post the Belfast agreement. It is a society where terrorists sit in government, where the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be disbanded and where the flying of the Union flag will be illegal for 95 per cent. of the year. These regulations are no solution. I believe that this is an example of a dimmer switch on British culture in Northern Ireland.

11.42 pm
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I want to make a point about Clifford Forsythe. I had enormous pleasure working with him on a Select Committee for all the years that he was in the House. My grandmother's phrase for Clifford would be that he was one of God's gentlemen. I would not want that side of his character not to be recorded tonight.

I much enjoyed talking to Clifford about Northern Ireland and Irish politics. While he was a passionate Unionist he was also balanced in his debates. I should tell my hon. Friends that it is important to remember in these debates that the cornerstone for the Belfast agreement was that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom until people vote otherwise. There are other points in the agreement about proper respect, but that is the cornerstone.

One could not know Clifford and not also record that he believed that there was a range of views to which he was totally opposed, but that he believed were legitimate if they were not backed by the gun. I must tell my friends on the Opposition Benches that, while I more than sympathise with the anguish that they bring to these debates, it is important when debating these matters that, while we hold to central points, we also link with that the fact that, as democrats, there are other views with which we may disagree but which are totally legitimate for people to hold and to press in debates in order to seek to win over others.

As I have said, it is clear that the cornerstone of the Belfast agreement is that Northern Ireland remains a part of this country until people vote otherwise. Given that agreement, it is proper that the nature of the United Kingdom should be affirmed from public buildings.

11.44 pm
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

The task before us today is to disentangle the nature of the Union flag. The Union flag needs to fly on Government buildings when it is the symbol of the agreement in Belfast that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. It must not be used to make a different statement, as sometimes happens in other parts of the United Kingdom. We know of political parties that try to assert that they have a particular relationship with the Union flag. There is one particular party that, I feel, has little right to make that statement, for it is exclusive and extremist—[Interruption.] I am trying to take this issue seriously. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was listened to with great seriousness, although some of the things that he said were, I thought, inappropriate for this occasion.

The Government are properly attempting to identify those occasions on which the Union flag can reasonably be accepted—even by those who, in a referendum, would say that they do not wish to be part of the United Kingdom—as the symbol of statehood. That is a proper use of the Union flag. I have to tell the hon. Member for South Antrim (Rev. William McCrea) that it is a total distortion of the proposed regulations to suggest that they are about stopping people from flying the flag on other occasions. The proposals seek to entrench those occasions when, by flying the flag, the people of Northern Ireland assert the fact, which was accepted by all sides to the Belfast agreement, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom unless and until it decides to be otherwise. That is why those occasions are identified.

There is an exact parallel between such use of the Union flag and use—if I may dare to move to a more controversial subject—of the European flag. The European flag is flown on those occasions on which we are asserting something that, for me, is a matter of joy and celebration—that we are part of the European Union. However, the European flag is not to be flown on occasions on which it would be merely an assertion of a partisan position.

I fly the European flag on other occasions to celebrate a particular point of view. When it is flown on Europe day, however, it does not celebrate a particular view, it makes a statement of fact. I am afraid that some of my colleagues do not like that fact.

Mr. Swayne

Hear, hear.

Mr. Gummer

On that one occasion, however, they have to accept that fact. They can fight about it the rest of the time, but, on that one occasion, they should accept that we are making a factual and not a partisan statement. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), that is a very important parallel.

I should like to finish my comments by saying something to my Unionist friends. As one who is in that curious position of being Catholic-Unionist, I have to say that I do not think that the Unionist cause would be helped by any attempt to claim the Union flag as a sectarian flag. It is not a sectarian flag. The moment that the Union flag is merely a symbol of those who happen to hold such a view, it ceases to be the flag that can fly from Government buildings.

The Union flag is the symbol of the fact that the people of Northern Ireland, by a majority, wish to be part of the United Kingdom. It is also a symbol of a democracy that says that if, by a majority, the people of Northern Ireland decide that they do not want to be part of the United Kingdom, no one is going to keep them there. However, as long as they do want to be part of the United Kingdom, that is their flag.

The Unionist people have to be very careful that they do not make it more difficult for the nationalist majority to accept that symbol for what it is by trying to pretend that it has some other connection. In that sense, I think that the Government's proposed regulations are perfectly proper. The fact that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) may or may not have difficulties does not detract from the reality of the situation. We are choosing a series of occasions to affirm one thing—that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so unless and until the people want something different. That is what the flag symbolises and nothing more and, let me say to the hon. Member for Hull, North, nothing less either.

Mr. Wilshire

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has set about his Unionist friends. I suspect that he was pointing to those on the Bench in front of me, so I hope that he will allow me to say that I am one of his Unionist friends. I find it is most unfortunate that he is discussing as a sectarian symbol the same flag that I, as a Unionist and an Englishman, see as a statement of national sovereignty. Should he not see it in the same way?

Mr. Gummer

I have to say to my hon. Friend that I did not say that and I have to say something rather sharply to him. If he would only listen to those of us who are trying to bring together the two communities instead of constantly trying to see in what we say something that runs against his own prejudices, it might be that we who do not represent Irish seats can help those who do to bring the communities together instead of merely stoking the forces of division.

11.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

First, I welcome the hon. Member for South Antrim (Rev. William McCrea) back to the House. I am sure that all hon. Members will share the sentiments that he expressed about the late Clifford Forsythe. I am not sure whether a repeat maiden speech has quite the same standing, but it was in the best tradition of the House for the hon. Gentleman to pay tribute to his predecessor. It was a worthy tribute to a fine man and I am sure his family will be grateful, as will his constituents. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, on this occasion, as probably on many others, I cannot endorse much of what he said, but the House will have noted that, in his absence from this place, he has lost none of his fiery style of presentation.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) asked a series of questions and I shall try to answer them as quickly as I can. The right hon. Gentleman, among others, asked whether the list of specified buildings could be reviewed and the regulations appropriately revised in due course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered that, but I am happy to repeat what he said. No doubt there will be occasions, such as the creation of new buildings, when it will be appropriate to do that. As and when that becomes necessary, the appropriate revisions will be undertaken.

If a problem emerged over the death of a well-respected head of state, for example, or some other well-respected person in Northern Ireland, I would hope that it could be overcome by voluntary means, and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bracknell joins me in that. However, if it becomes apparent that there is a problem, the appropriate revisions can be considered.

The right hon. Gentleman and others raised the question of Parliament buildings. Again, my right hon. Friend mentioned the solution to that. The right hon. Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) will appreciate that the best solution would be for the Assembly to agree what is right, proper and appropriate. We have not lost all hope that it will do that in this and other matters involving flag-flying.

Time does not permit me to go into great detail on the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I say to my hon. Friend—the same applies to the hon. Member for South Antrim—that he either ignores or misses the whole point of the Good Friday Agreement.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) gave good explanations of the current constitutional situation of Northern Ireland within the context of both the Good Friday agreement and where it sits within the UK. I will not add to that, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North had listened carefully to those speeches, he would have had to accept that they were logical and expressed the situation very well.

I conclude by responding briefly to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). He is always constructive and helpful in these debates and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I appreciate his contributions to the on-going process in which we are all involved.

I will not enter into the European debate on this issue—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16(1).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, which were laid before this House on 23 October, be approved.