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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

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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

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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

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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:


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.


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