Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I take a slightly more sympathetic view of the amendment, although I would not have moved it myself. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh seems to be saying that, even while we discuss the Bill, some people feel that efforts are being made to slip a few royal arms and symbols in before the closing date. That is a perfectly reasonable concern to raise.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made the opposite case clearly, but some from the nationalist and republican communities may feel aggrieved that, until the Bill comes into force, there will be a kind of free-for-all in getting as many symbols into place as possible. Like the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, I have never been particularly offended by symbols representing other cultures, but I know that some people have. I would be interested to hear the Minister's view of the cogent case made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Listening to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh outline the rationale for the amendment, one could be forgiven for thinking that the display of royal arms in the courts has been a bone of contention for a long time. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been involved in Northern Ireland politics for a long time, and I do not recall it being an issue before the publication of the criminal justice review. It certainly has not been an issue for the professions or members of the Bar, and the number joining the professions from Unionist, nationalist or other communities has neither diminished nor increased as a result of the display.

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It is not a subject that has made the headlines. I may not have been involved in politics for as long as the hon. Gentleman, but I venture to say that I am not that far behind him. I have been involved in politics in Northern Ireland for 25 years, and I cannot recall it ever having been an issue of controversy prior to the criminal justice review. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the completion of buildings. I urge hon. Members to check, to discover how long the building work to which he alluded has been going on, and what its completion date was and is. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's fears are unfounded.

I am most definitely at one with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh in saying that the matter of symbols in Northern Ireland cannot be overestimated—nor can the question of their removal. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland alluded before Christmas to a cold place in Northern Ireland for Unionists. The import of the amendment would be not a cold place; it would be for the freezer to be turned down. The issue has not been a bone of contention for either community. Indeed, the lack of controversy and the subject's absence from the headlines indicate that the presence of the symbols was never a bone of contention. However, should the amendment be accepted, their removal most certainly would be a cause for controversy. I therefore find myself resolutely in opposition to the thrust of the amendment.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I wish to make only a brief contribution. I acknowledge that the question of symbols has a particular resonance in Northern Ireland, for reasons that we are all well aware of, but it is important also in other parts of the United Kingdom. We must be wary that our debate is not entirely in the context of Northern Ireland. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I accept that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has given long service in the House, but I nevertheless disagree with him. He seems to argue that if we do not agree to the amendment, the proposed timings could cause offence to one tradition in Northern Ireland. We have to acknowledge that in agreeing to accept it. Even to do what the Government propose on their suggested timings would cause great offence to another tradition in Northern Ireland. However gently he made his argument, his amendment would rub things in so far as the other tradition was concerned.

When we debated timing on Second Reading, I argued that there would be an anomaly, in that some courthouses would display the royal arms but others would not, depending not on what they stood for but simply on when they opened. To give the Minister full marks for honesty, he replied, ''That is true.'' The question of whether the symbols are displayed raises issues of great principle. To alter the timing, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to do, would not obviate the point of principle but make the situation worse by rubbing one tradition's nose in it. I respectfully but firmly disagree with him.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I am grateful for the measured way in which Committee members

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have approached the debate, and am sure that we shall return to some of the issues on other amendments. It may help the Committee if I tackle some of the issues of principle in the context of the amendment, as they will inform our debates. The issue is obviously important and emotive, and nothing that I say is intended to undermine that fact. The Government appreciate it, and it was reflected in the contributions to the debate, whether they came from firmly held positions or were meant as ameliatory and looked for centre ground, as some did.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that it is regrettable, if perhaps predictable, that the issue of symbols—one recommendation out of 294 in the review—is likely to attract more attention than the important and radical changes elsewhere in the Bill. I have said that before. I am not unrealistic, however. It is also a pity that the symbols issue tends to be treated as a zero sum game in Northern Ireland, which is a mistake. I believe that there is scope for an outcome that is principled, consistent and fair.

Several important principles lie behind the review recommendations, which build on the thinking in the Belfast agreement made on Good Friday. In the context of the debate, it is legitimate to make the point raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) about the absence of any apparent controversy in relation to the issue. He talked about seeing the issue in the context of more than Northern Ireland. However, we are where we are. The review made the specific recommendations, so lines were drawn on the issue to some degree, and it then became an issue with which the Government had to deal.

As the hon. Member for North Down points out, the recommendation, which the Government have attempted to translate into legislation, has its roots in the agreement. It was from the agreement that the remit for the review came. She pointed out that the agreement stressed

    ''the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need . . . to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect''.

I think that that was the quotation in the agreement to which she referred.

The criminal justice review developed its work on the subject in line with the approach recommended in the agreement. The review group saw that an important balance had to be struck between recognising the courts' position within the agreed constitutional framework, and using symbols in a sensitive manner.

The review group sought to achieve the necessary balance in its recommendations. Whatever it proposed, there would undoubtedly have been objections from all sides. However, the recommendations were an attempt to strike a careful balance, in particular making a useful distinction between the interiors of courtrooms and exteriors of courthouses, where, arguably, different considerations apply. The Bill reflects the thinking behind those recommendations.

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I regret that the Government have to come before Parliament to regulate in statute a matter that, so far as I know, has never been discussed in legislation before. That, again, reflects the lack of confidence and trust between the two sides in Northern Ireland. However, I remain optimistic that that state of affairs need not continue forever. Like the review group, the Government

    ''look to a future when these issues can be addressed on an agreed basis to the satisfaction of all parts of the community''.

Lady Hermon: The Minister referred to the quotation that I used from the agreement about the need

    ''to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect''.

How can the words ''symbols'' and ''are to be used'' be compatible with the agreement, when the review recommends an absence of symbols?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. She and I have discussed the issue during debates in the House and in private. I do not accept that the review recommends the absence of symbols. Indeed, the review recommendation specifically refers to the retention of symbols in certain circumstances. That is the aspect of the review's recommendations that I described as an attempt to strike a careful balance. This is not a science. We cannot say that balances, when they are to be struck, can be struck specifically as if this were a law of physics; it is not.

There is debate about the interpretation of what the review group said, what it recommended and what it sought to see enacted to create a proper balance, and the hon. Lady engages in that debate in a constructive and positive fashion. However, to say that the recommendation equates with the absence of symbols is to misrepresent the position. I remain optimistic. I borrowed the quotation from the review to try to explain to the Committee the Government's position so far as the future is concerned.

I draw the Committee's attention to the recent agreement on symbols by the Policing Board, which is an example of being able to look to the future and to resolve matters in an agreed fashion that generates satisfaction. Many were sceptical at the idea that the new Policing Board could come up with an agreed symbol. The board's success is a lesson to us all.

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Prepared 12 February 2002