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Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, for the good reasons expressed by noble Lords in their speeches, I share the general anxieties about the order. We hope that goodwill will prevail and that the order might not be required. But surely if it was required, it is inconceivable that the Government would prevent the flying of the Union flag in Northern Ireland. I should have thought that the Government could come out and say now, "We want to make certain that if there is disagreement, we will fly the Union flag" because that is so important from the point of view of the United Kingdom.
I cannot understand, as, indeed, I believe my noble friend Lord Glentoran said at the beginning of the debate, why this is called the Flags Order. We do not have any old flag. This should be the Union Flag Order as far as this Parliament is concerned. As my noble friend Lord Biffen mentioned, it is sad that we have reached this stage of legislating relative to our own flag. If one goes abroad, particularly to the United States of America, one will see the United States flag flying everywhere. Throughout the suburbs of many areas of the USA not only are there United States flags flying but state flags also. The people there are very flag minded. I believe that is true in Northern Ireland where, rightly, they like to promote the use of our Union flag.
As my noble friend Lord Glentoran indicated right from the start, it was a sad affair to bring this order to the House. It is sad that it is necessary and sad that the Government have any doubt in their mind as to what they would do if there was disagreement within the Assembly in Northern Ireland. I cannot believe that any government, particularly a government here at Westminster, could prevent the flying of the Union flag in Northern Ireland and even the possibility of flying it alongside the tricolour. It just does not seem feasible to me, and I think that the Government should stand up and say, "If there is any doubt, yes, we fly the Union flag".
As regards flags on government property, there is a precedent which might usefully be followed. That is the precedent which seems to govern the letterheads on the official writing paper of Northern Ireland government departments. These simply and plainly state the name and address of the department, and are not embellished with coats of arms, crests or other devices. Perhaps that could be borne in mind.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I regard the Motion which is before the House today as rather analogous to what happened on Good Friday two years ago, when the Belfast Agreement was drawn up. I think I am right in saying that securing the vote of the people of Northern Ireland for the Belfast Agreement was on the basis of not just everything that was in the agreement but also a personal assurance that was given by the Prime Minister overnight and the handwritten note that was presented alongside the agreement to the people of Northern Ireland, reassuring them on their basic and rather fundamental fears about the issue of decommissioning.
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, is agreeing with me that there was a concern that the people of Northern Ireland would not actually sign the agreement without that reassurance. I believe that to be the case. What we have here is another device--the word "device" has just been used--and I would not regard flying the flag of one's own sovereign country to be a device. However, this is a device: it is a device to take yet another issue about Northern Ireland, kick it into the long grass, and leave it to be fought over another day. I believe that this is a fudge and a typical "third way" in the Government's handling of matters in Northern Ireland.
I should like to say that flying the flag of one's own sovereign country is a basic human right and the people of Northern Ireland should be allowed to exercise that right. I can only foresee, as I think my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale said, that this difficult and painful debate will continue. Indeed, I believe it will bring it into greater focus. That is because the people will be preoccupied with this as the first issue that needs to be addressed by the Assembly and the Executive when they meet. They will first have to resolve the flags issue.
It seems to me almost offensive to refer to "flags". I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Glentoran: that we should at least extend the courtesy to our friends in Northern Ireland, our fellow countrymen, of referring to "the Union flag" and not saying merely "flags".
Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am very sympathetic towards the Government over the very difficult problem that faces them. I have sympathy, too, with the Unionists of Northern Ireland in their difficulty. I know that the Nationalists can be
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for the contributions that have been made to this short but important debate. I understand the concern that has been expressed about this order. Perhaps I may try briefly to reply to all the points that have been made. To begin, I should like to say something about the principles that underlie the making of the Order.
First, we believe that this difficult but important issue is best resolved by the Executive, if it can be. We believe that the best way of doing so is to pursue the principles of the Belfast Agreement. As that agreement acknowledges the legitimacy of the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, I believe that practice in Northern Ireland should reflect practice elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It should result in mutual respect, not division.
The Union flag remains the flag of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a constituent part. While that is the wish of the majority of its people, flying the flag should be accepted practice. That issue is without doubt best resolved by the Executive. Having said that, it would be in nobody's interest if the Executive was consumed for weeks and months by shadow-boxing over what is essentially a symbolic issue.
All of us would like to see the Executive build up a sense of common collective purpose and approach to the business of governing Northern Ireland in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. This draft order provides my right honourable friend the Secretary of State with a reserve power to set regulations on flag flying from government buildings. He will only use this reserve power if it becomes clear that the Executive is unable to agree a way forward and the issue is becoming a palpable source of division among its members.
Great concern has been expressed in your Lordships' House about the use of the word "flags" rather than "flag". The reason the word appears in the plural is because the order must be able to prohibit as well as to permit. There was absolutely no intention of any sort to cause offence one way or the other by using that phrase. I very much hope what I have said puts your Lordships' minds at rest in relation to that particular issue.--
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Minister for giving way. It was not the plural or the singular that I was referring to: I felt that it should be the "Union flag", as opposed to "flag" or "flags".
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the reason the word is in the plural is, as I have indicated, because there may be more than one flag at issue, both in relation to prohibition and consent. That is why the drafting appears in that way. I hope that is clear.
The second concern that was expressed was about timing. Legally, the Government only have power to pass this order while the Assembly is suspended. From Monday it will not be possible for them to pass this order and therefore it has to be done this week. That is why it was done at speed, bypassing to some extent the normal procedures. It was not done as an attempt to avoid the proper protections but simply to reflect the fact that if there was to be this reserve power, which we think is important to avoid the risk of the unsuspended Assembly becoming consumed by this issue, it had to be done this week. That is why the normal standing orders have been bypassed.
There was concern about what is a government building. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked whether it included Stormont, or the parliament building. As I understood it, that was her question. The answer is no, it does not. The Parliament building, as the seat of the legislature, is not under the control of a Northern Ireland Minister in the Executive. Decisions relating to parliament buildings are taken by the Assembly Commission, which is a corporate body made up of Members of the Assembly and chaired by the Speaker.
One question related to army camps. They are not under the control of the Executive but under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Obviously it will be a matter for the Ministry of Defence to determine. As for the RUC, that body is under the control of a chief constable, and obviously it is for him to determine issues about flag flying. I believe I have dealt with all the specific points that were raised. Obviously we understand the great concern that has been expressed, but I hope your Lordships understand that a painstaking and enormous amount of hard work was put into building confidence in an attempt to restore politics to normal in Northern Ireland. We think this is a sensible way forward in this respect, and I commend this Order to the House.