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Lord Monson: My Lords, I agree with the thrust of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. However, perhaps I may put three specific questions to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in the spirit of genuine inquiry. The first question relates to paragraph (4) of Regulation 2 which requires--the noble and learned Lord used the word "allows"--the "European flag", which presumably means the European Union flag, to be flown in addition to the Union flag on Europe Day. Does a parallel obligation apply to government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales?
My second question is related to Regulation 3 which provides that the Union flag may be flown on the occasion of a visit by another head of state. Why "may"? Surely, it would be most unusual, as well as highly discourteous to the visiting head of state, for the Union flag not to be flown on such an occasion.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, having been untypically critical in recent months of certain aspects of the Government's policy on Northern Ireland, it is only fair that I should stay tonight to congratulate the Secretary of State upon these regulations. I do not for a minute suppose that by doing so I shall make his day.
The Government rightly seek reconciliation in Northern Ireland. I take care not to say "produce reconciliation" because that must be found within those who are divided within the community of the Province. All of us in this House wish them well. However, we know that Northern Ireland is a place in which flags and emblems are wont to have highly emotive and generally opposing connotations for each side of the community. Therefore, I do not find it surprising, but share the regret already expressed by noble Lords, that Her Majesty's Government have tabled these regulations tonight. It is not surprising for the reasons which all of us who have had the privilege of studying, let alone living in, Northern Ireland well understand.
However, to deny the exclusive legitimacy of the Union flag when discussing what flags, if any, shall be flown from the public buildings of this Union is to deny even-handedness. There can be no reconciliation in Northern Ireland unless Her Majesty's Government are seen to act even-handedly. They would not be even-handed if they permitted the flying of the tricolour alongside the Union flag, because that would be seen as denying the exclusive legitimacy of the flag in what is by law and--of much more recent significance--the consent and action of all those who support the Good Friday agreement, part of the Union. The agreement is the latest, and perhaps most vivid, instrument to uphold the principle of consent in the context of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. In those circumstances, to argue and demand that the tricolour should have parity of esteem (to coin a phrase) with the Union flag is to act provocatively and in breach of the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.
I make one additional point on which perhaps I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. These regulations have been very skilfully drafted and are not all one way; that is, the Unionist way. They exclude certain days when the flag has been habitually flown in Northern Ireland which are not days of obligation in the rest of the United Kingdom. I for one was always uncomfortable with the flying of the Union flag on 12th July. I believed that that served to make it perhaps a partisan flag, whereas it is, and should be, a flag that symbolises the Union under which all who have respect for the law can stand comfortably. Therefore, I believe that that is a skilful and legitimate way to demonstrate even-handedness in these regulations.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, I do not believe that the Union flag is flown over this Parliament as a parliament building--I have given thought to this matter only in the past minute or so--I suspect that the Union flag flies over this building whether or not Parliament is sitting, because it is a royal palace. I am prepared to be told that I am wrong about that. However, I do not believe that there is any departure from uniformity with the rest of the United Kingdom if the flag does not fly over the Stormont building.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, my views are broadly in line with the thinking of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. I echo his congratulations to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on the intelligent and tactful way in which he introduced the regulations.
Like all other noble Lords, I note that the Northern Ireland Assembly could not reach agreement on this issue. Given the Assembly's composition, that failure was hardly surprising. Perhaps the lesson is that it is very unwise to involve the Assembly in matters which lie entirely within the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, responsible as he is to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Having consulted--admittedly in default and not for the want of trying--and having received conflicting advice from the parties in the Assembly, the Secretary of State finds himself quite unnecessarily in a no-win situation--because in Northern Ireland, as in many other areas, there are questions which cannot safely be asked.
In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, a serious constitutional point is involved. Under constitutional law Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. Surely any matter which touches on that fact is solely within the jurisdiction of the Government and Parliament of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it follows that in the Northern Ireland Assembly no Minister in a devolved body has any legal right or function and should not become involved in any issue such as that which is legally discussed by your Lordships today.
It is not a question of possessiveness on the part of Her Majesty's Government and Parliament. There is the damage created by inviting the Northern Ireland Assembly to become entangled in arguments over issues on which it can take no actions anyway. It should be appropriate for the Secretary of State to make available to the Assembly the equivalent, perhaps, of a White Paper as a matter of courtesy, but not necessarily to consult. If one consults, one is engaged in a divisive exercise and one gets conflicting answers. To go beyond that matter of courtesy of the publication of the equivalent of a White Paper for the Assembly would lead to damaged relations within the Assembly. It could cause unnecessary friction over legislation in the promotion of which the Assembly and its Ministers could have no legitimate role.
The noble and learned Lord the Minister expressed the hope that the day might come when powers of this nature might be devolved to the Assembly. While I share his hope that current progress will be maintained, I would caution against the transfer of any powers of concern solely to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In my humble opinion, it is safer by far to retain all such constitutional matters within the sovereign Parliament, where divisive influences are not generally generated.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I, too, find myself in the most agreeable situation of being able to welcome the regulations most warmly. I should like also to pay my tribute to the courage and good sense of the Secretary of State. This is a very wise decision. It must have been a hard decision to take. As a result, I daresay he will continue to receive a good deal of flak. But I am sure that he has done the right thing. It is an enormous pleasure to be able to welcome something so positive.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I suppose anyone who visits Northern Ireland and is not familiar with that part of the country will be amazed at the widespread use of flags, flying not just from public buildings but from private houses. In that respect, Northern Ireland is clearly different from other parts of the United Kingdom. It is not just flags, but kerb stones, graffiti on gable ends and so on. It is surprising at how prevalent is the habit of trying to demonstrate one's allegiance by flags and other symbols. Therefore, I appreciate the difficulty that the Secretary of State was in in trying to deal with this issue in the absence of any clear lead from the Assembly or the Executive.
I share the welcome given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, to the sensible decision not to fly the flag on 12th July. I am bound to say that the United Kingdom is no longer uniform in respect of flying flags. In Scotland a decision was made to fly the flag on fewer occasions than those listed in the regulations. To express a personal view--I do not wish any disrespect to the individuals concerned--I see that in Scotland the flag is flown on fewer occasions because some of the lesser members of the Royal Family do not have flags flown on their particular days. I was surprised that we have so many days in England. I was not aware that some of the members of the Royal Family have flags flown on their birthdays. I wonder whether it is not worth thinking about that as well in the context of the wider United Kingdom. I say that without wishing any disrespect to the individuals concerned; but we fly the flag a good deal.
I read with interest the report of the Assembly and its failure to agree. I noticed that the SDLP made one interesting suggestion; namely, that both flags--the Union Jack and the tricolour--may be flown on occasions when there are meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, of north/south bodies and of the British Irish Council. Given that the regulations contain provision for flying the flag of another country when a visiting head of state happens to be present, that seems worth thinking about. Therefore, the SDLP's suggestion has merit.
I notice that the Northern Ireland Assembly, without any difficulty, devised its own logo--the flax flower. I am not aware of any dissent. I suppose that what Northern Ireland needs is its own flag, as well as the Union Jack. I am surprised that the Assembly did not think of flying the flag of Saint Patrick on such occasions. I thought Saint Patrick was acceptable throughout the whole community. So I am a little
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