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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002

Draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 2002.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I am sure that the Committee will deal with the regulations in an expeditious and relevant way, and that you will keep us close to that objective.

The draft regulations make minor adjustments to the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000. In part, the motivation behind them is the very sad one that we must lift the requirement for the flying of the Union flag from certain Government buildings in Northern Ireland on the birthdays of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The other element of the regulations is much happier: they provide for the flag to be flown, as it will be elsewhere in the United Kingdom, during the weekend of celebrations for Her Majesty's golden jubilee from 1 to 4 June this year.

I should first explain why legislation is necessary at all. In Northern Ireland, unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, the flying of flags on Government buildings has long been a matter of some controversy—that is the understatement of the day. Until devolution under the Belfast agreement, the question was, of course, one for Her Majesty's Government. Following devolution, the Northern Ireland Executive sought to arrive at a common understanding on the way forward, but was unable to do so.

In the circumstances, the then Secretary of State thought it right to legislate to establish consistent arrangements for flying the Union flag, reflecting those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 permitted the Secretary of State to make regulations on the matter, subject to consultation with the Assembly and the approval of each House here. The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, passed later the same year, set out the detailed scheme, requiring the flying of the Union flag from a number of Government buildings on days specified in the regulations, and on those days only. The days were those on which flags were customarily flown on Government buildings in Great Britain.

I am aware that that legislation was not without controversy, and that some people in Northern Ireland still have regrets about it, or about aspects of it, but I hope that the draft instrument will not reawaken them, because it is in the nature of routine maintenance of the

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earlier legislation and is entirely consistent with its principles. The form of the regulations means that such running repairs are necessary from time to time.

The Assembly has been consulted on the draft regulations, as the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 requires. That is right, because this is, properly, a transferred matter that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive could properly deal with. The Assembly debated the matter, but did not seek to arrive at a consolidated view. That is understandable, in view of the limited amount of time that, unfortunately, was available to it. On the one hand, one of the events that provoked the regulations, the death of Her Majesty the Queen Mother, is still painfully recent. On the other hand, the jubilee celebrations are imminent, but policy on the flying of flags in Great Britain on that occasion has only recently been decided. Nevertheless, the Assembly held a debate, during which a range of views were expressed, and a copy of the official report of that debate, which was forwarded to the Secretary of State by the Speaker, has been made available to the Committee.

It is fair to say that there was little opposition to the draft regulations, although, as I have said, controversy still reigns over aspects of the earlier order, and some of that controversy showed through in the debate. On the whole, however, many Assembly Members expressly recognised the desirability of the regulations, and the Assembly has certainly not expressed any view to this House that it should hesitate over their approval.

We would welcome it if the Northern Ireland authorities were to take back the area of policy on the basis of an agreed approach. I hope that the day is getting near when it will be possible for agreement to be reached on such issues in Northern Ireland. The Executive and the Assembly have achieved a great deal, and we must never forget how far we have moved since the Belfast agreement.

Attitudes are changing, especially on royal matters. It was my great privilege to take part last week in the visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Northern Ireland. It was an immensely cheering experience, not only because of the great and evident pleasure that it brought directly to a large number of people, but because all shades of nationalists—as we can understand in the light of their constitutional aspirations, they have always viewed royal visits differently—were able to acknowledge the importance of the visit to their Unionist fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I would like clarification on the Minister's reference to the change in attitudes to royal matters. Will he confirm that the flag will be flown at the new Royal Courts of Justice at Laganside on 1, 3 and 4 June 2002?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady interrupted me as I was coming to the end of my remarks. Given the comparatively simple nature of the regulations, I had not intended to say much more. She will know that regulations 2(1) and (2) of the 2000 regulations refer to

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the buildings on which the flag is required to be flown on specified dates. The buildings are broadly in two categories, one of which is specified Government buildings set out in a schedule to the regulations. Regulation 2(2) requires the Union flag to be flown

    ''at any other government building at which it was the practice to fly the Union flag on notified days in the period of 12 months ending with 30th November 1999.''

For the edification of hon. Members who have not worked it out—the hon. Lady clearly has done—the building to which she referred did not exist on 30 November 1999, and certainly not in its complete state, so the provision could not apply to it. From my reading of the list of specified buildings, the regulations do not apply to that building. However, policy on court buildings is a matter for the Lord Chancellor, not for the regulations. I shall ensure that the implication of her question is made clear to him.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister clarify the original interpretation of the 2000 regulations? Is it his view that a Government building that was not listed in the schedule, such as that of the Department of Education if it were to move elsewhere, would not be required to fly the Union flag?

Mr. Browne: Such questions are helpful, in terms of clarification. When one legislates for such matters, life shows us that what appears simple at the outset becomes complicated. What I described as the housekeeping is the simplest part of the regulations.

I shall try not to refer specifically again to the 2000 regulations, which are to be amended. The hon. Lady knows the buildings to which they apply. The current regulations would not apply to any future building that did not fit the description specified in regulation 2(2) of the 2000 regulations. One does not know to which building an Executive Department may move, so one cannot clearly say whether it would be on the list.

On the hon. Lady's earlier question, she may recollect that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill contains a provision that amends the flags regulations to ensure that they apply to court buildings. However, the Bill will not—even with the best will in the world—be enacted before the earliest date on which the amended regulations will apply. I hope that those answers cover the issues that she raised.

Lady Hermon: This is an important point because the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is guaranteed in the Belfast agreement and is recognised by flying the Union flag. Will the Minister give a commitment that the gaps in the 2000 regulations will be closed? It is already obvious from our debate that there are gaps, and that those regulations do not cover future Government buildings.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, which I might answer by drawing her attention to the fact that we are discussing the regulations today. I am sure that I can convince her that the Government will not be reluctant to deal with issues such as those that we are discussing. Indeed, the

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hon. Lady will be aware that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill deals with the issue of court buildings, which she raised.

The hon. Lady will also know that the Government were reluctant to legislate in respect of flags in these and the earlier regulations. I have expressed the hope that the Executive and the Assembly will be able to take responsibility for the issue, as intended in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in the first instance. I am sure that she shares my aspiration that clarity will be brought to the issue by the people of Northern Ireland, rather than by Government legislation on an issue on which it is accepted that the required precision cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, we may need to return to these issues.

Before taking those interventions, which helped to clarify matters, I was sharing with the Committee my experience of Her Majesty the Queen's visit to Northern Ireland last week. The visit was a positive event for several reasons, including the views expressed by nationalists across the board. It is worth noting that some nationalists took a full part in the visit, and reflected the feelings of Unionists. As Her Majesty said when she spoke to it, the Assembly

    ''can demonstrate that it is possible to build trust, and in doing so continue the building of new Northern Ireland''.

The visit itself brought out a most positive and hopeful spirit among Members of the Assembly.

For the time being, however, the power to make such regulations remains with us, and, taking account of the Assembly's views, I commend the instrument to the Committee.

4.43 pm


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