Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Mallon: I am becoming very interested in the hon. Lady's point. She has gone to great pains to obtain the statistics about the courthouses that bear the symbols, and we thank her for that. How many of those courthouses in the north of Ireland bear any symbol that will be representative of what could broadly be called the nationalist tradition?

Lady Hermon: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The royal coat of arms already contains the harp, which is very much the symbol of the Irish tradition. If the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me again, I shall have a look through my papers, as I have a copy of it somewhere.

Mr. Mallon: It is only right that the hon. Lady have time to look through her papers.

The Chairman: This a very unusual intervention.

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Mr. Mallon: Certainly, my understanding is that the harp, although a symbol of Irish nationalism, originated in Wales, as did St. Patrick, extraordinarily.

Lady Hermon: I thank you for your patience and tolerance, Mr. Pike, during that useful intervention by the hon. Gentleman, which gave me some time. With a little help from my colleagues, I can now say that the harp is incorporated in the third quarter of the royal coat of arms. By extension, it is in royal coats of arms throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

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Mr. Blunt: I want to address the contribution made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, who rightly said that the issue was never of special importance and had not been raised by anyone. One draws parallels with the extraordinary outbursts of violence from time to time in countries such as India when the remains of Hindu temples are discovered under mosques. People were wholly unaware of such issues, but then they were discovered, brought to the fore and two communities that had rubbed along perfectly happily were suddenly lined up as opposing sides. Even in recent years, there have been tragic events in India and substantial bloodshed caused by issues that, to the purposes of the outside world, were entirely symbolic. That is why it is a pity that we are considering such measures at all.

Before I develop those arguments, I want to tackle briefly the consequences of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. I hope that he appreciates that it would mean that one would have to re-sculpt the Supreme Court in Belfast. Never mind that the royal coat of arms is carved into the wood above the judges' seats inside the courtrooms; the marble structure of the foyer of that building is carved with the royal coat of arms and other symbols appertaining to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. I cannot remember what the symbols are precisely, but they are extremely large. As the hon. Member for North Down said, to remove them would be an act of vandalism—

Mr. Garnier: I am sorry to have committed an act of vandalism on my hon. Friend's sentence. I am especially interested in the phrase in the amendment,

    ''in any other place inside a court-house''.

That highlights the deficiency of the clause, which refers to either the exterior of courthouses or the interior of courtrooms, but on my reading does not deal with the public parts of the court building such as the foyer or hall. The Minister may take a different view. Subsection (1) mentions the courtroom, and subsections (2) and (4) refer to the exterior or outside of a courthouse. My hon. Friend's point chimed in with only those references.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. and learned Friend is right in referring to one of the consequences of the amendment, because it is framed to take account of the whole court environment. As he correctly points out, it does not comprise only the court room and the exterior of the courthouse but includes the other areas inside the courthouse.

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Mr. Browne: That is not my reading of the amendment. It refers to ''other symbols''. It would have no impact on the royal coat of arms. We have not yet heard what those other symbols might be, but they do not include the royal coat of arms.

Mr. Blunt: I am trying to remember what I saw on my one visit to the courtroom in question, but I do not think that the royal coat of arms was displayed. It was a slightly different symbol, but the amendment would remove it.

That leads me to the point about heritage made by the hon. Member for North Down. The hon. Lady drew attention to those courts where the royal coat of arms is built into the fabric, and said that it would obviously be an act of vandalism to remove it. She drew attention to the Secretary of State's comments on the subject on Second Reading. He said:

    ''We are considering all the representations we have received, including a number expressing concern on heritage grounds about the removal of certain symbols. We will consider whether any changes are needed in the light of the responses to the consultation exercise, and the views expressed in the House. We are open to any constructive suggestions, particularly those capable of attracting cross-community support.''—[Official Report, 21 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 646.]

We are about to put some pretty explicit instructions into primary legislation, and unless other legislation is going to be made that will overrule it, that vandalism will take place. Should Parliament pass the Bill, the royal coats of arms will be stripped out and the vandalism to which the hon. Lady referred will take place unless a qualifying phrase is inserted at a later stage.

The hon. Member for North Down was right to draw attention to the Belfast agreement and the constitutional position. I do not want to repeat what she said; I entirely agree with her. I noted that, in response to the previous debate, the Minister said that the review had tried to strike a careful balance and that it was a matter of judgment. He said that there was no law of physics that would bring us to the correct solution.

The review has been deficient in trying to match the wisdom of Solomon. The Government propose slicing the baby in half, but neither side will intervene to save the baby's life. We shall be left in the unique position that the review will have managed to offend everybody. That does not deliver on the Belfast agreement—nor on the Labour party manifesto.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, nevertheless, that, however it came about, a satisfactory settlement was reached on symbols for the police and for Stormont? It is not necessarily an irreconcilable position to find a symbol that would suit most of us—or even all of us.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point, with which I agree. I wonder why we are attempting to achieve such a thing in the Bill. All it does is create division.

The point was included in the Labour party manifesto. A copy of the Parliamentary Labour party briefing came to me from the office of the Secretary of State—by indirect means, I might add. It

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states that the Bill delivers another manifesto commitment. It continues:

    ''We will ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full and that new institutions take root . . . We will bring about the key reforms in the civil and criminal justice system which secure the respect and trust of both traditions.''

I hope that the Government do not believe that they have delivered on that item of their manifesto because, palpably, this provision will undermine the rest of the Bill and line the issue up with judicial oaths. Indeed, the provision is worse than that on judicial oaths because the stripping away of symbols will be so visible to the community.

The answer to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and the Committee sits in the review. Having taken a position, the concluding part of the review's recommendations states:

    ''These practices would become subject to any decision of the Assembly on devolution of responsibility for courts administration.''

It would have been infinitely better if that position had been taken in the first place. We have now created a situation where we all have to take fundamental positions based on an issue about which I suspect people had not previously given a great deal of thought. Because we are driven into considering what the symbology means, we have to take positions fundamentally aligned with our political philosophies. The Conservative party has to decide whether to support new clause 3, tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, which will insist that royal coats of arms should be displayed inside courtrooms and outside courthouses. The Minister correctly pointed out that there has not been any legislation in that area before. The use of those symbols has arisen through custom and practice. The accepted custom and practice under our constitution is that justice flows from the Crown, which is above politics. The symbol of the royal coat of arms, of the Queen, of justice flowing from the sovereign in court above the political process will be lost.

The Conservative party will be forced to take up a position. My preference is that the clauses should not appear in the Bill. Before we get to that point, we will be invited to vote on new clause 3. Plainly, the Conservative party takes a position about the place of Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom and the role of the sovereign. Our position is that justice flows from the sovereign. While Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom by the consent of the majority of its people, those are the appropriate symbols to reflect the constitutional reality. The Conservative party will support new clause 3 if the hon. Member for East Londonderry presses it to a vote.

It is a pity that the Government were not wise enough to follow the excellent precedent set by the Policing Board, which managed to resolve this difficult issue in an effectively devolved framework.

Lady Hermon rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, it may be helpful if I gave a ruling so that everyone knows where we are regarding new clause 3, which is grouped with the amendment. Mr. Campbell

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has indicated to the Committee that he would seek to move new clause 3, which is tabled in his name. That would be taken at the end of this part of the Bill. At that stage, he would move the new clause formally. I have to inform the Committee that, if the question that clause 66 stand part is agreed to, I would not be able to allow a separate Division on new clause 3. New clause 3 would be inconsistent with clause 66. I would allow a Division on new clause 3 if the question whether clause 66 stand part of the Bill were negatived. I hope that that makes the position absolutely clear. If hon. Members are minded to vote on new clause 3 they must defeat clause 66 in the clause stand part debate, which would allow me to put new clause 3 to a Division. I hope that that ruling is clear.

6 pm

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Prepared 12 February 2002