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Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order and I endorse the view of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that it was done with commendable clarity.

It is vital that this order goes through. The flags issue, important and symbolic though it is, should not impede this stage of the peace process. The order provides an opportunity for Northern Ireland opinion of all kinds to make its views felt when devolution returns, as we hope it will.

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It is important that this should not be an issue which is allowed to be ratcheted up at this particular point in the negotiations. On these Benches, we unequivocally support the order.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was on the Front Bench earlier today when I questioned the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on why Standing Order 72 was being dispensed with for the taking of this order so that it could be passed, notwithstanding the fact that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had not reported on it.

The fact that the JCSI met today at quarter past four suggests to me that by now it has passed the order, but obviously there has not been time to report on it.

The noble Baroness's reasons seemed to me to be anodyne, so much so that one of my noble friends wanted to divide the House. In my view, that would have been quite wrong as the Motion which the noble Baroness sought to move at that point covered both orders. I am glad that, in the event, no Division was called.

The noble Baroness's reasons were, first, that this had been agreed through the usual channels, something of which I was not aware as I am not a member of the usual channels; and, secondly, that there is a Privy Council meeting tomorrow at which it is due to be discussed. It is my view that neither of those constitutes the emergency for which this standing order was designed.

The order transfers the responsibility for flags from the Assembly to the Secretary of State. As the noble and learned Lord said, there is no statutory provision for the flying of flags on government buildings in the United Kingdom. In Great Britain, the flying of the Union flag on public buildings is by royal command and is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, royal prerogative powers on transferred matters can be exercised by any Northern Ireland Minister. Since the flying of flags is a transferred matter, it should be dealt with, as the noble and learned Lord said, by the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, ultimately, by the Assembly itself.

However, in the light of political sensitivities concerning this matter, the Secretary of State has decided that he should take the authority to regulate the flying of flags on Northern Ireland government buildings should the need arise.

One of the reasons for that is the anticipation of the reconstitution or re-establishment of the Assembly on 22nd May, which is next week. Clearly, neither the Government nor anyone else wants that to start with a row on this or any other matter. One can understand that. Unfortunately, however, as I read the order, it does not stop the potentially antagonistic debate in the Assembly because the order provides that where the Secretary of State proposes to make regulations to regulate the flying of flags a draft of those regulations shall be referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly which, in turn, as the noble and learned Lord said, will

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report to the Secretary of State the views expressed by the Assembly. The regulations will then be subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.

So I am even more confused. First, it will not stop the potential row; and secondly, the urgency simply disappears because the second order, which will operate the flying of flags, is still to be laid before the House.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I have one or two questions for the Minister. First, the order expressly states:

    "'government building' means a building wholly or mainly occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service".

Does that include or exclude Stormont?

Secondly, we are told in the Explanatory Note and, indeed, in the Minister's speech, that the Secretary of State will have regard to the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement clearly states that it is recognised:

    "that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish. It would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of the majority of its people".

I appeal to the Belfast agreement to support my argument.

However, I have a further argument. The Minister said, and it is often said, that we should not allow all this fuss about symbols to get in the way of serious decisions. The Belfast agreement states:

    "All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes".

I could continue with that paragraph, but I shall not. Perhaps I may suggest that we should, indeed, meet the needs of the Belfast agreement. We should acknowledge that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, has a right to fly the Union flag and need not be expected to fly any other flag. However, I freely accept that if the British/Irish Council or the other joint body, during its meetings, should wish to fly the Irish flag also on Stormont, which I understand is what the Nationalists want, that seems perfectly reasonable. But we are talking about part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement justifies our sticking to that position.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, I, too, wish to speak on this order, the tone and tenor of which gives me grave concern. I believe that this issue cuts right across the unionism of the kingdom and lies at the heart of the Good Friday agreement.

The reason we are discussing this subject here today is largely due to the activities of two Sinn Fein/IRA Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive who, while in office, ordered the removal of the Union flag from their departmental building. I am sure that I do not need to remind anyone present in this House today of the importance which flags and emblems assume in Northern Ireland.

When the agreement was signed over two years ago, Unionists believed that there had been an acceptance on the part of the Irish Nationalists and the Irish

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Republicans of the principle of consent; in other words, an acceptance of the fact that there could be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That point was of fundamental importance and, indeed, was recognised and built upon by the actions of the Irish Government in replacing Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution which hitherto had laid claim to Northern Ireland.

If there is serious doubt as to what flag should fly over government and public buildings in the Province, we must examine the nature of the Belfast agreement. It is either, as Unionists believe, a recognition by all sides of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom or as part of a process designed to move Northern Ireland inexplicably towards a united Ireland or some form of joint authority.

It is my view that while the order is a step forward in that it removes the power of banning the flying of the Union flag from individual members of the Northern Ireland Executive and places that power in the hands of the Secretary of State, I believe that today we should instead be discussing on what days the flag will fly and on which buildings.

As I have stated, this issue cuts right across unionism. There are no "yes" and "no" camps on the flying of the Union flag within a constituent part of the kingdom. The constitutional settlement provided for by the Belfast agreement is within the United Kingdom and on the same basis as for Scotland and Wales. There can be no question, as was raised in some quarters at the weekend, of the Irish tricolour flying alongside the Union flag on British government and public buildings in Northern Ireland. That is a particularly dangerous notion which must be stamped on at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Irish tricolour is the national flag of another sovereign state. For it to fly alongside the Union flag on government buildings would signal to many Unionists and, indeed, Nationals, that a form of joint authority was in place in Northern Ireland. That certainly was not part of any agreement which I supported and for which many Unionists voted. The Secretary of State should be in no doubt that the national flag is the only flag which should fly over government and public buildings in Northern Ireland, and that means the Union flag.

Lord Biffen: My Lords, no one can view the impractical affairs of Northern Ireland without having great sympathy for those on the Government Front Bench who have to handle the responsibilities of that Province. However, my sympathies lie with those who have great anxiety about the instrument before us. I say that because it seems that we are enveloping the whole business of flag flying with a most extraordinary degree of legislation of one sort or another.

I cannot believe that the practical consequences of that will be other than to put pressure upon the flying of the Union flag. I believe that in its way, because of

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the symbolism, it is in line of succession with the Patten report on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is all part of a situation where, by one means or another, there is a subtle process at work--I do not say that it is the responsibility of the Government; it goes much wider than the British political system--of hoping to shoehorn Northern Ireland out of its traditional Unionist loyalties into some other form. I view that with suspicion and sadness.

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