HL Deb 16 May 2000 vol 613 cc200-9

4.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th May be approved.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under paragraph 1 (1) of the schedule to the Northern Ireland Act 2000.

The key provisions of the draft order are essentially the following: to provide the Secretary of State with regulation-making powers to regulate the flying of flags on government buildings in Northern Ireland; to ensure that the regulations would be referred in draft to the Northern Ireland Assembly; to provide that the Secretary of State shall consider any report made by the Assembly of the views expressed in the Assembly: to require the Secretary of State to have regard to the Belfast agreement when making regulations and to provide that the regulations are laid in draft before, and approved by, both Houses of Parliament.

Under direct rule, the position was that the Union flag was flown from all government buildings on certain set days. These included most of the days on which the Union flag was flown from government buildings elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but also included some extra days specific only to Northern Ireland, including, for example, St Patrick's Day and 12th July.

The basis of practice on flag flying is, formally, a Royal Command by Her Majesty issued on the Royal Prerogative. Under devolution, these powers of the Royal Prerogative were transferred, in respect of devolved matters, to the individual Northern Ireland Ministers and departments.

During the 10 weeks of devolution, there was no common position among the Northern Ireland Ministers on how they should exercise their prerogative powers in relation to flags. The result was that most departments flew the Union flag from all their buildings on all the specified days; but two departments, under the instructions of their Ministers, did not fly the Union flag at all.

The Government believe that this difficult—though symbolic—issue is best resolved by the Executive Committee itself. Its members are best equipped to identify a basis on which practical and symbolic expression can be given to the underlying principles of the Good Friday agreement, the principle of consent, the principle of equality and the principle of mutual respect.

However, the Government do not want to see the Executive distracted by an essentially symbolic issue from their work to build up a sense of common collective purpose and approach to the business of governing Northern Ireland in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

So this draft order provides a reserve power to set regulations on flag flying from government buildings in Northern Ireland. This reserve power will only be used if it becomes clear that the Executive Committee is unable to agree a way forward and the issue is becoming a palpable source of division among its members.

This reserve power has a number of important safeguards. As I have already said, the power to make regulations about flag-flying on government buildings in Northern Ireland will not be exercised until the Executive Committee has had an opportunity to see whether it can resolve the issue itself. But if this power is to be exercised to remove a potential source of division, it shall be done only in consultation with the Assembly and the Executive Committee. The draft order requires consultation with the Assembly on any regulations and any views it reports are taken into account.

The draft order also requires, very properly, that regard is paid to the provisions of the Belfast agreement—provisions on the principle of consent, on the principle of equality of treatment for the different identities and the provision for symbols and emblems to be used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.

Finally any regulations are to be approved in both Houses of Parliament.

The Government are not imposing proposals. If, at the end of the day, there is a need to exercise this reserve power there are a number of questions which will need to be answered. What arrangements for flag flying are suitable for government buildings in Northern Ireland and which respect the provisions of the Good Friday agreement? Is it right that the Union flag should be flown from government buildings in Northern Ireland on more days than is the case elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Is it necessarily helpful to require the flag to fly from every government building, wherever it is located and however significant or insignificant it may be? What other arrangements should be in place for flag flying?

The Government believe that a common-sense arrangement, respecting all the principles of the Good Friday agreement, can be arrived at with good will by the members of the Executive Committee. It is on that basis—hoping that the Government never need this power, but ready to use it if the Executive Committee cannot reach agreement—that I commend this draft order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th May be approved.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

4.30 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, before saying anything on the order, I should like to thank the Government Chief Whip's office. The business today has been fairly confused and the Government Chief Whip's office has been extremely helpful. It has gone out of its way to make sure that those of us concerned with this order had a reasonable idea of when it would be dealt with.

I thank the Minister for the clear and precise way in which he explained the need for the order. I do not like it. I think it is a great shame that we must legislate not only in the House and another place but also, perhaps, in a Northern Ireland Assembly about whether and when we fly our national flag from our nation's government buildings. I find that very distasteful.

I feel that it is yet another move in the wrong direction. It would have been very much more helpful if the actions of the two Sinn Fein Ministers had not been highlighted in that way and they had quietly been told to go on doing what is customary to be done by the nation's Government whom they are serving. I should like to point out that those two Sinn Fein Ministers are serving in a British Government in a British state and, indeed, in part of the United Kingdom. It is traditional. As the Minister said, it is the Queen's Prerogative that the Union flag will be flown on government buildings within the United Kingdom on certain given days, ordered by her.

The other matter which concerns me about the order is its wording. So often in Northern Ireland orders, there is fudged wording. Part III states: The Secretary of State may make regulations regarding the flying of flags over government buildings". It is the Union flag which is flown over government buildings. I believe that the wording of the order sends the wrong message or it is sloppy. I do not believe that it should be sloppy. We are talking about the Union flag.

I do not like this order; I do not like the way that it is pointing; and I do not believe that the 60 per cent of the population who are Unionists in Northern Ireland will appreciate it either.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order and I endorse the view of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that it was done with commendable clarity.

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.

It is important that this should not be an issue which is allowed to be ratcheted up at this particular point in the negotiations. On these Benches, we unequivocally support the order.

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 fact that the JCSI met today at quarter past four suggests to me that by now it has passed the order, but obviously there has not been time to report 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 report to the Secretary of State the views expressed by the Assembly. The regulations will then be subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.

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.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I have one or two questions for the Minister. First, the order expressly states: 'government building' means a building wholly or mainly occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service". Does that include or exclude Stormont?

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: that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish. It would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of the majority of its people". I appeal to the Belfast agreement to support my argument.

However, I have a further argument. The Minister said, and it is often said, that we should not allow all this fuss about symbols to get in the way of serious decisions. The Belfast agreement states: All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes". I could continue with that paragraph, but I shall not. Perhaps I may suggest that we should, indeed, meet the needs of the Belfast agreement. We should acknowledge that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, has a right to fly the Union flag and need not be expected to fly any other flag. However, I freely accept that if the British/Irish Council or the other joint body, during its meetings, should wish to fly the Irish flag also on Stormont, which I understand is what the Nationalists want, that seems perfectly reasonable. But we are talking about part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement justifies our sticking to that position.

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.

When the agreement was signed over two years ago, Unionists believed that there had been an acceptance on the part of the Irish Nationalists and the Irish Republicans of the principle of consent; in other words, an acceptance of the fact that there could be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That point was of fundamental importance and, indeed, was recognised and built upon by the actions of the Irish Government in replacing Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution which hitherto had laid claim to 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.

I cannot believe that the practical consequences of that will be other than to put pressure upon the flying of the Union flag. I believe that in its way, because of the symbolism, it is in line of succession with the Patten report on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is all part of a situation where, by one means or another, there is a subtle process at work—I do not say that it is the responsibility of the Government; it goes much wider than the British political system—of hoping to shoehorn Northern Ireland out of its traditional Unionist loyalties into some other form. I view that with suspicion and sadness.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, for the good reasons expressed by noble Lords in their speeches, I share the general anxieties about the order. We hope that goodwill will prevail and that the order might not be required. But surely if it was required, it is inconceivable that the Government would prevent the flying of the Union flag in Northern Ireland. I should have thought that the Government could come out and say now, "We want to make certain that if there is disagreement, we will fly the Union flag" because that is so important from the point of view of the United Kingdom.

I cannot understand, as, indeed, I believe my noble friend Lord Glentoran said at the beginning of the debate, why this is called the Flags Order. We do not have any old flag. This should be the Union Flag Order as far as this Parliament is concerned. As my noble friend Lord Biffen mentioned, it is sad that we have reached this stage of legislating relative to our own flag. If one goes abroad, particularly to the United States of America, one will see the United States flag flying everywhere. Throughout the suburbs of many areas of the USA not only are there United States flags flying but state flags also. The people there are very flag minded. I believe that is true in Northern Ireland where, rightly, they like to promote the use of our Union flag.

I share the view of my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth as regards the statement: occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service". That does not seem to me to be a good definition of a government building. Does it include military buildings? What about army camps? Are they entitled to fly the Union flag, as they often do, alongside their regimental flag? As my noble friend asked, does it apply to RUC police stations and headquarters?

As my noble friend Lord Glentoran indicated right from the start, it was a sad affair to bring this order to the House. It is sad that it is necessary and sad that the Government have any doubt in their mind as to what they would do if there was disagreement within the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I cannot believe that any government, particularly a government here at Westminster, could prevent the flying of the Union flag in Northern Ireland and even the possibility of flying it alongside the tricolour. It just does not seem feasible to me, and I think that the Government should stand up and say, "If there is any doubt, yes, we fly the Union flag".

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I think I can understand some of the fears and anxieties expressed during this debate. They seem to reflect the tensions that arise from a deeply divided society. I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Minister whether he agrees that probably the fewer flags, of any kind, that can be flown in Northern Ireland the better for all concerned.

As regards flags on government property, there is a precedent which might usefully be followed. That is the precedent which seems to govern the letterheads on the official writing paper of Northern Ireland government departments. These simply and plainly state the name and address of the department, and are not embellished with coats of arms, crests or other devices. Perhaps that could be borne in mind.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I regard the Motion which is before the House today as rather analogous to what happened on Good Friday two years ago, when the Belfast Agreement was drawn up. I think I am right in saying that securing the vote of the people of Northern Ireland for the Belfast Agreement was on the basis of not just everything that was in the agreement but also a personal assurance that was given by the Prime Minister overnight and the handwritten note that was presented alongside the agreement to the people of Northern Ireland, reassuring them on their basic and rather fundamental fears about the issue of decommissioning.

I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is agreeing with me that there was a concern that the people of Northern Ireland would not actually sign the agreement without that reassurance. I believe that to be the case. What we have here is another device—the word "device" has just been used—and I would not regard flying the flag of one's own sovereign country to be a device. However, this is a device: it is a device to take yet another issue about Northern Ireland, kick it into the long grass, and leave it to be fought over another day. I believe that this is a fudge and a typical "third way" in the Government's handling of matters in Northern Ireland.

I should like to say that flying the flag of one's own sovereign country is a basic human right and the people of Northern Ireland should be allowed to exercise that right. I can only foresee, as I think my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale said, that this difficult and painful debate will continue. Indeed, I believe it will bring it into greater focus. That is because the people will be preoccupied with this as the first issue that needs to be addressed by the Assembly and the Executive when they meet. They will first have to resolve the flags issue.

It seems to me almost offensive to refer to "flags". I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Glentoran: that we should at least extend the courtesy to our friends in Northern Ireland, our fellow countrymen, of referring to "the Union flag" and not saying merely "flags".

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am very sympathetic towards the Government over the very difficult problem that faces them. I have sympathy, too, with the Unionists of Northern Ireland in their difficulty. I know that the Nationalists can be somewhat irritating, to say the least, but I wonder whether it is absolutely necessary or helpful to fly the Union flag on 12th July.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for the contributions that have been made to this short but important debate. I understand the concern that has been expressed about this order. Perhaps I may try briefly to reply to all the points that have been made. To begin, I should like to say something about the principles that underlie the making of the Order.

First, we believe that this difficult but important issue is best resolved by the Executive, if it can be. We believe that the best way of doing so is to pursue the principles of the Belfast Agreement. As that agreement acknowledges the legitimacy of the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, I believe that practice in Northern Ireland should reflect practice elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It should result in mutual respect, not division.

The Union flag remains the flag of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a constituent part. While that is the wish of the majority of its people, flying the flag should be accepted practice. That issue is without doubt best resolved by the Executive. Having said that, it would be in nobody's interest if the Executive was consumed for weeks and months by shadow-boxing over what is essentially a symbolic issue.

All of us would like to see the Executive build up a sense of common collective purpose and approach to the business of governing Northern Ireland in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. This draft order provides my right honourable friend the Secretary of State with a reserve power to set regulations on flag flying from government buildings. He will only use this reserve power if it becomes clear that the Executive is unable to agree a way forward and the issue is becoming a palpable source of division among its members.

Great concern has been expressed in your Lordships' House about the use of the word "flags" rather than "flag". The reason the word appears in the plural is because the order must be able to prohibit as well as to permit. There was absolutely no intention of any sort to cause offence one way or the other by using that phrase. I very much hope what I have said puts your Lordships' minds at rest in relation to that particular issue.—

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Minister for giving way. It was not the plural or the singular that I was referring to: I felt that it should be the "Union flag", as opposed to "flag" or "flags".

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the reason the word is in the plural is, as I have indicated, because there may be more than one flag at issue, both in relation to prohibition and consent. That is why the drafting appears in that way. I hope that is clear.

The second concern that was expressed was about timing. Legally, the Government only have power to pass this order while the Assembly is suspended. From Monday it will not be possible for them to pass this order and therefore it has to be done this week. That is why it was done at speed, bypassing to some extent the normal procedures. It was not done as an attempt to avoid the proper protections but simply to reflect the fact that if there was to be this reserve power, which we think is important to avoid the risk of the unsuspended Assembly becoming consumed by this issue, it had to be done this week. That is why the normal standing orders have been bypassed.

There was concern about what is a government building. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked whether it included Stormont, or the parliament building. As I understood it, that was her question. The answer is no, it does not. The Parliament building, as the seat of the legislature, is not under the control of a Northern Ireland Minister in the Executive. Decisions relating to parliament buildings are taken by the Assembly Commission, which is a corporate body made up of Members of the Assembly and chaired by the Speaker.

One question related to army camps. They are not under the control of the Executive but under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Obviously it will be a matter for the Ministry of Defence to determine. As for the RUC, that body is under the control of a chief constable, and obviously it is for him to determine issues about flag flying. I believe I have dealt with all the specific points that were raised. Obviously we understand the great concern that has been expressed, but I hope your Lordships understand that a painstaking and enormous amount of hard work was put into building confidence in an attempt to restore politics to normal in Northern Ireland. We think this is a sensible way forward in this respect, and I commend this Order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.