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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

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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.

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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

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

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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

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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:

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