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25 Oct 2000 : Column 334


10.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): I beg to move,

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.

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That is why the participants in the Good Friday agreement explicitly accept that

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

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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.

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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.

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