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Exiting the European Union (Armorial Bearings, Ensigns and Flags)

Volume 656: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019

[Relevant document: First Report of the European Statutory Instruments Committee, HC 1532.]

I beg to move,

That the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 25 February, be approved.

I am delighted to move the motion, which deals with a narrow but important issue surrounding the flag-flying regulations in Northern Ireland. For most of the rest of the UK, vexillology—a new word I have learned today—which is the study of and interest in flag flying, is a relatively light-hearted affair and something that many people have as a hobby, but in Northern Ireland, for understandable and important reasons, it is a far more important and sensitive issue that we need to address with great care and consideration.

The Minister has stolen my thunder. I was going to commend him for becoming an expert vexillologist. He has put us all to shame by saying he is only learning the trade. In Northern Ireland, it is something one has to learn incredibly quickly. He knows that we have supported this statutory instrument from its conception and that we understand the rationale behind it, but he also knows of our concerns about the continual deletion of flag-flying designated days under the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000. Will he commit to engaging with us and others so that in future we get a replication of the decision taken by Belfast City Council and by the Assembly Commission itself to follow the guidelines from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and to make sure that there is a uniformity of approach when it comes to flying our national flag across our nation?

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to hold fire for a second? I will deal with his question and endeavour to ensure that I have answered it, but I am sure that if I do not, he will come back and pin me down.

Let me briefly explain what the statutory instrument will do. In most of the rest of the United Kingdom, the decision on what flags should fly on Government buildings is based on a relatively straightforward list issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Changing that and ensuring that when we have left the European Union Government buildings will no longer have to fly flags on Europe Day, 9 May, will also be relatively straightforward. However, in Northern Ireland, because of the sensitivities and because of the importance of flag flying and the symbolic issues surrounding it, it is an altogether more complicated matter.

Flag-flying regulations are baked into legislation that is ultimately the preserve of the Stormont Assembly. The SI therefore amends those regulations, using the order-making powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to delete the requirement to fly flags in Northern Ireland on Europe Day. If we do not pass it, we shall be left in a rather incongruous and, I am sure, unwanted position. The only place in the United Kingdom that would still have to fly flags officially on Europe Day would be Northern Ireland, and I am sure that none of us want that, for a variety of reasons.

Let me now deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). He is right to suggest that the situation in Northern Ireland is much more complicated. Under the current regulations, Northern Ireland Government buildings follow the list of designated days in the regulations that we are, I hope, amending today, whereas UK Government buildings follow the list issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Local authorities are responsible for flag flying according to their own policies: some fly the Union flag throughout the year, while others do not fly it all. I believe that Belfast City Council follows the DCMS list of designated days. The flag-flying days for Parliament buildings, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned—that is, the Stormont buildings themselves—are decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, not by our Parliament. As it happens, the commission has chosen to follow the DCMS list of designated flag-flying days.

Let me now provide an important piece of trivia for the benefit of anyone who is caught up in a pub quiz at any point over the next few weeks. Under the Police Emblems and Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2002, police stations in Northern Ireland may not fly either the Union flag or any other national flag. They can only fly the Police Service of Northern Ireland service flag, except in the event of a visit by Her Majesty the Queen, when the royal standard may be flown in place of the service flag.

I said earlier, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Minister was quickly becoming a considered vexillologist, and you will have understood from what he has been saying that he is gaining a good understanding of the changes and the unique differences in Northern Ireland. I remind him, however, that some of the reasons for those differences relate to our history and to political will in different parts of our local government.

I was Lord Mayor of Belfast at the time of the decision to limit flag flying in Belfast City Hall, and I remember how vexed that situation was. I remember the strife and the division to which the decision led, the difficulties caused to community relations and the emotion that is always associated with the flying of flags. There is one arrangement when City Hall and Parliament buildings fly a flag, but the flying of flags on a Government building or the Royal Courts of Justice, for example, is governed by another provision which draws on the flags order but is contained in a justice order. Does the Minister accept that that leads to concerns and queries about why a flag is flying on two buildings but not on another, which is why we need a uniform approach?

The hon. Gentleman is right that it causes concerns and I doubt that many people will automatically and instinctively know or understand the various different lists of regulations that I have just explained to the House, and therefore why should anybody have anything like the level of expertise of the hon. Gentleman, who served as mayor of Belfast during a time when a very contentious issue had to be dealt with and debated? It was handled very carefully and resolved in the end, but he will know better than perhaps anybody how difficult that path was to tread.

The difficulty we have with the regulations we are debating and I hope amending today is that, other than the one we are able to amend today because we are amending it through the leaving the EU Act itself, they can only be amended through a very particular process that requires the Stormont Assembly to be in operation and sitting. In fact, to be precise, it requires the Secretary of State to refer to the Assembly any amendments to these regulations. The Assembly then has to report to the Secretary of State the views expressed on the proposed amendments and the Secretary of State has to have considered the Assembly’s report.

I therefore completely take the hon. Gentleman’s point that it would be hugely desirable to be able to address any upcoming changes and proposals that might stem from any sides of the different communities in Northern Ireland, but that would have to be done with great care in the same way as he has described happened in Belfast. That cannot only best be done but probably only properly be done with a functioning Assembly in Stormont, to make sure all sides of the community have their views represented and that difficult and sometimes painful path can be trodden as it was in Belfast when the hon. Gentleman was there.

This is my final intervention. Does the Minister understand that tonight he is proposing a change to the flags order without going through that process?

Yes I do, and we are only able to do this without going through that process because it is just a change to the Europe Day regulations. It is a change that is consequent on us leaving the EU and therefore there is a different power in a different Act that allows us to change this in this way for this one purpose, but it does not, I am afraid, go any wider or allow us to make any other changes to any of the rest of those regulations, much though the hon. Gentleman might want me to.

I am conscious of the hour and do not want to take up anyone’s time, but I will make one final point: obviously, because we are proposing to make this change through the operation of the Act for leaving the EU, it cannot take effect until we have left the EU, so depending on the decisions made at the European Council over the next couple of days, it is possible that we will have approved this and then we will not actually have left the EU legally by the time the next Europe Day comes up. In that case, legally, I will have no option or legal powers to do anything other than delay signing this order to bring it into force until the day after we have finally left the EU. I can promise the House, however, that we will do so as promptly as possible once we have finally Brexited, to make sure this thing takes effect as quickly as possible.

May I possibly trespass on the good nature of the House? There has not been an opportunity since St Patrick’s Day for us to mention in the House our sympathy for the three 17-year-olds who died in the Greenvale hotel in Cookstown on Sunday. I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that our thoughts, prayers and sympathies are with them, their families and their friends.

May I also pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) who last raised this subject on the Floor of the House and spoke with great knowledge? Vexillology is the order of the day now and has become a compulsory requirement for ministerial appointment.

There are few things that fill the House with greater dread, fear and an awful sense of foreboding than someone—even someone as modest, quiet and shy as myself—saying, “I will not detain the House for long.” If those words are enunciated in a Strangford accent, that normally means that Hansard will send out for pizzas and everyone else will cancel their late-night taxis. However, on this occasion, the Opposition will support the Government.

The Minister made an important point about the solemnity and seriousness of this issue, and this is something that we ignore at our peril. We have a totally different template here in Great Britain. For example, on 21 October we fly the Union flag in recognition of Trafalgar Day at the Royal British Legion in Greenford, and in Northolt library they are virtually vexillomaniacs in that they scarcely miss an opportunity to fly the flag, on anything from International Women’s Day to Commonwealth Day, or when the local team makes it through to the cup final, although that does not happen very often.

What we are doing here is, hopefully, tidying up the legislation. The Minister is absolutely correct to say that this will not take effect until, sadly, we leave the European Union. Flags are important. Flags matter. They are more than just symbols. Sadly, I know that I do not speak for everyone in the House when I say that when the European flag, that noble oriflamme, is no longer displayed proudly from City Hall, I hope that that flag of idealism and unity will still flutter proudly in our hearts. Let the European flag flutter within us even if it cannot flutter without us in Northern Ireland. I am glad to support the motion.

I am not quite sure that I can follow that speech either in substance or in sentiment, but I shall do my best.

On the face of it, this is a minor, unobjectionable, technical measure. However, I commend the European Statutory Instrument Committee for being canny enough to spot the fact that the words “flag” and “Northern Ireland” appearing in the same sentence probably mean that we should exercise caution and be careful. Presumably that is why the Committee referred this measure for affirmative resolution.

I recall that shortly after the referendum in 2016, people were getting terribly excited about hauling down the European Union flag. I thought that that was rather sad and unnecessary, but of course when we come to leave the European Union, the big picture in the newspapers the following day will be the European Union flag being hauled down from overseas embassies, for example.

Europe Day is clearly important for a lot of people. It is important for the European Union itself, for our neighbours and for European Union citizens here. I think we need to be little relaxed about this particular flag in the United Kingdom. I note that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issues guidance and advice in GB, although it is clearly more prescriptive for Northern Ireland for the obvious reasons that were touched upon by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) when he outlined his long-standing personal experience of this matter, particularly in relation to Belfast City Hall.

I think that this country as a whole needs to be just a little bit relaxed about the flying of this flag on Europe Day, although I have no idea what guidance DCMS will subsequently offer on the subject of flying flags. It would seem to be a reasonable expression of our amity and concord with other European Union states, and indeed European Union citizens, if we could perhaps be a little laid back about the flying of this flag on public buildings, given that we are in the habit of flying various flags and banners from such buildings on the appropriate days, either formally or informally, from time to time. Given the importance of flags as an expression of goodwill, it would not be inappropriate for DCMS to ponder that fact as it issues and updates its guidance.

I am delighted that both sides of the House are willing to support this motion, which is very helpful. It is always better for things that tread on contentious ground to be broadly and widely supported, so I thank everyone for that.

I join the shadow Minister, and I am sure everyone, in expressing sympathy for the victims in Cookstown—he is right to raise it. I welcome him back to the Dispatch Box. With his crutch, he turned up limping but determined to make sure he is here representing his party’s viewpoint, which is always good to see. He also gets points for a neologism, at least I think it is a neologism. I have certainly never heard of vexillomaniacs, which is a brand-new word for me at least.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, is right to make a plea for tolerance and being laid back, if we possibly can, both on flag flying and on symbols more generally.

There is a second Europe Day that is not 9 May but 5 May, which is the Council of Europe’s Europe Day rather than the EU’s Europe Day. It is quite possible that some people might decide to fly a European flag on those days, and I am sure in many cases others will be entirely tolerant, but it is outwith the scope of this measure. I am delighted to record that everyone seems to be in agreement and onside.

Question put and agreed to.