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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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:

that includes the Union flag--

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

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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.

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