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11.42 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I want to make a point about Clifford Forsythe. I had enormous pleasure working with him on a Select Committee for all the years that he was in the House. My grandmother's phrase for Clifford would be that he was one of God's gentlemen. I would not want that side of his character not to be recorded tonight.

I much enjoyed talking to Clifford about Northern Ireland and Irish politics. While he was a passionate Unionist he was also balanced in his debates. I should tell my hon. Friends that it is important to remember in these debates that the cornerstone for the Belfast agreement was that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom until people vote otherwise. There are other points in the agreement about proper respect, but that is the cornerstone.

One could not know Clifford and not also record that he believed that there was a range of views to which he was totally opposed, but that he believed were legitimate if they were not backed by the gun. I must tell my friends on the Opposition Benches that, while I more than sympathise with the anguish that they bring to these debates, it is important when debating these matters that, while we hold to central points, we also link with that the fact that, as democrats, there are other views with which we may disagree but which are totally legitimate for people to hold and to press in debates in order to seek to win over others.

As I have said, it is clear that the cornerstone of the Belfast agreement is that Northern Ireland remains a part of this country until people vote otherwise. Given that agreement, it is proper that the nature of the United Kingdom should be affirmed from public buildings.

11.44 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): The task before us today is to disentangle the nature of the Union flag. The Union flag needs to fly on Government buildings when it is the symbol of the agreement in Belfast that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. It must not be used to make a different statement, as sometimes happens in other parts of the United Kingdom. We know of political parties that try to assert that they have a particular relationship with the Union flag. There is one particular party that, I feel, has little right to make that statement, for it is exclusive and extremist--[Interruption.] I am trying to take this issue seriously. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was listened to with great seriousness, although some of the things that he said were, I thought, inappropriate for this occasion.

The Government are properly attempting to identify those occasions on which the Union flag can reasonably be accepted--even by those who, in a referendum, would say that they do not wish to be part of the United Kingdom--as the symbol of statehood. That is a proper use of the Union flag. I have to tell the hon. Member for

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South Antrim (Rev. William McCrea) that it is a total distortion of the proposed regulations to suggest that they are about stopping people from flying the flag on other occasions. The proposals seek to entrench those occasions when, by flying the flag, the people of Northern Ireland assert the fact, which was accepted by all sides to the Belfast agreement, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom unless and until it decides to be otherwise. That is why those occasions are identified.

There is an exact parallel between such use of the Union flag and use--if I may dare to move to a more controversial subject--of the European flag. The European flag is flown on those occasions on which we are asserting something that, for me, is a matter of joy and celebration--that we are part of the European Union. However, the European flag is not to be flown on occasions on which it would be merely an assertion of a partisan position.

I fly the European flag on other occasions to celebrate a particular point of view. When it is flown on Europe day, however, it does not celebrate a particular view, it makes a statement of fact. I am afraid that some of my colleagues do not like that fact.

Mr. Swayne: Hear, hear.

Mr. Gummer: On that one occasion, however, they have to accept that fact. They can fight about it the rest of the time, but, on that one occasion, they should accept that we are making a factual and not a partisan statement. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), that is a very important parallel.

I should like to finish my comments by saying something to my Unionist friends. As one who is in that curious position of being Catholic-Unionist, I have to say that I do not think that the Unionist cause would be helped by any attempt to claim the Union flag as a sectarian flag. It is not a sectarian flag. The moment that the Union flag is merely a symbol of those who happen to hold such a view, it ceases to be the flag that can fly from Government buildings.

The Union flag is the symbol of the fact that the people of Northern Ireland, by a majority, wish to be part of the United Kingdom. It is also a symbol of a democracy that says that if, by a majority, the people of Northern Ireland decide that they do not want to be part of the United Kingdom, no one is going to keep them there. However, as long as they do want to be part of the United Kingdom, that is their flag.

The Unionist people have to be very careful that they do not make it more difficult for the nationalist majority to accept that symbol for what it is by trying to pretend that it has some other connection. In that sense, I think that the Government's proposed regulations are perfectly proper. The fact that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) may or may not have difficulties does not detract from the reality of the situation. We are choosing a series of occasions to affirm one thing--that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so unless and until the people want something

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different. That is what the flag symbolises and nothing more and, let me say to the hon. Member for Hull, North, nothing less either.

Mr. Wilshire: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has set about his Unionist friends. I suspect that he was pointing to those on the Bench in front of me, so I hope that he will allow me to say that I am one of his Unionist friends. I find it is most unfortunate that he is discussing as a sectarian symbol the same flag that I, as a Unionist and an Englishman, see as a statement of national sovereignty. Should he not see it in the same way?

Mr. Gummer: I have to say to my hon. Friend that I did not say that and I have to say something rather sharply to him. If he would only listen to those of us who are trying to bring together the two communities instead of constantly trying to see in what we say something that runs against his own prejudices, it might be that we who do not represent Irish seats can help those who do to bring the communities together instead of merely stoking the forces of division.

11.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): First, I welcome the hon. Member for South Antrim (Rev. William McCrea) back to the House. I am sure that all hon. Members will share the sentiments that he expressed about the late Clifford Forsythe. I am not sure whether a repeat maiden speech has quite the same standing, but it was in the best tradition of the House for the hon. Gentleman to pay tribute to his predecessor. It was a worthy tribute to a fine man and I am sure his family will be grateful, as will his constituents. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, on this occasion, as probably on many others, I cannot endorse much of what he said, but the House will have noted that, in his absence from this place, he has lost none of his fiery style of presentation.

The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) asked a series of questions and I shall try to answer them as quickly as I can. The right hon. Gentleman, among others, asked whether the list of specified buildings could be reviewed and the regulations appropriately revised in due course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered that, but I am happy to repeat what he said. No doubt there will be occasions, such as the creation of new buildings, when it will be appropriate to do that. As and when that becomes necessary, the appropriate revisions will be undertaken.

If a problem emerged over the death of a well-respected head of state, for example, or some other well-respected person in Northern Ireland, I would hope that it could be overcome by voluntary means, and I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bracknell joins me in that. However, if it becomes apparent that there is a problem, the appropriate revisions can be considered.

The right hon. Gentleman and others raised the question of Parliament buildings. Again, my right hon. Friend mentioned the solution to that. The right hon. Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) will appreciate that the best solution would be for the Assembly to agree what is right, proper and appropriate. We have not lost all hope that it will do that in this and other matters involving flag-flying.

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Time does not permit me to go into great detail on the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I say to my hon. Friend--the same applies to the hon. Member for South Antrim--that he either ignores or misses the whole point of the Good Friday Agreement.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) gave good explanations of the current constitutional situation of Northern Ireland within the context of both the Good Friday agreement and where it sits within the UK. I will not add to that, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North had listened carefully to those speeches, he would have had to accept that they were logical and expressed the situation very well.

I conclude by responding briefly to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). He is always constructive and helpful in these debates and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I appreciate his contributions to the on-going process in which we are all involved.

I will not enter into the European debate on this issue--

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16(1).

Question agreed to.


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