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Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

Relevant document: 23rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the draft Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, were laid before the House on 23 November. I hardly need to remind the Committee, given the number of noble Lords from Northern Ireland who have taken an interest over the years, that the flying of flags is a very sensitive and delicate issue. Political disagreements over these issues led to the then Labour Government here in Westminster making provision on these matters in 2000 through the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, with flag flying on government buildings in Northern Ireland becoming a matter for the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000.

The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 provide that on certain designated days the union flag, and in certain circumstances other flags, must be flown from government buildings. For the purposes of these regulations, a Northern Ireland government building is a building wholly or mainly occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 2000 regulations also set out a number of “specified buildings” at which the union flag must be flown on the designated days in question. These buildings were chosen as they were the headquarters of Northern Ireland government departments. In 2002, the provisions of the regulations were extended by the then Government to court buildings in Northern Ireland.

After a very long gap of 18 years, the regulations were most recently amended in 2020 to deliver on a government commitment in New Decade, New Approach, which restored a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. This commitment was clear in stating that the Government will:

“Update the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to bring the list of designated flag flying days from Northern Ireland government buildings and court-houses into line with the DCMS designated days, meaning the same designated days will be observed in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK”.

The Government will continue to deliver on this commitment to align the designated days in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK.

As such, the instrument before the Committee today amends the 2000 regulations in four ways. The first two of the four amendments made by these regulations reflect the updated list of designated days for flag flying observed elsewhere in our country. They do so by amending the 2000 regulations following the sad death of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, last April, to remove his birthday, and the wedding day of Her Majesty the Queen, as designated days. A further amendment provides for the union flag to fly on the proclamation of a new monarch. This addresses an anomaly where currently the flags regulations only make provision for half-masting in the event of the death of a member of the Royal Family or a serving or former Prime Minister, and not for subsequent full masting upon the accession of a new monarch.

I trust that noble Lords will appreciate that, as the 2000 regulations set out in law the flying of flags from government buildings in Northern Ireland, they must have regard to a wide range of possible circumstances. It is for those reasons too that the final amendment provides that the union flag need not be flown on a designated day relating to a member of the Royal Family who has died.

The 2000 flags order requires that consideration be given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement when making or amending the flags regulations. I can confirm that the Secretary of State is satisfied that these regulations treat flags and emblems in a manner that is respectful of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, while being fully consistent with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as an integral part of our United Kingdom. The 2000 order also requires that consideration be given to regulations ahead of them being laid by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I can confirm this took place on 8 November and want to thank the Assembly for deliberating on these regulations in a considered and thoughtful manner.

I note that the other place debated this rather technical instrument in quick order—in some five and a half minutes—on 5 January and look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords today. In that spirit, I commend the instrument to the Committee, and I beg to move.

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the very technical provisions in these regulations. They deal with very sensitive issues relating to the passing of Prince Philip and the demarcation issues around the wedding day of the late Prince and Queen Elizabeth.

While the regulations make technical amendments, it is worth noting that flags and emblems in Northern Ireland have gone to the very heart of our society and community. They also lead in very much to our divided society. Northern Ireland is a divided society where flags and emblems are used on many occasions to mark out territory, define identity and cause internecine conflict between both traditions; this situation is heightened during the marching season. I suppose there are two flags: the flag of the United Kingdom and that of the Republic of Ireland. It is important that there is respect for both traditions and that we talk in terms of mutual understanding, building a shared society and having respect for political difference. Flags should not be dragged in the gutter to make a political point. Traditions should respect the value of identity and of those flags that demonstrate identity.

There is one issue, which was also raised during the Assembly debate on this on 8 November. The Minister will recall that, at the Stormont House talks, and then with the subsequent agreement, a decision was taken to establish the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. It met on many occasions and eventually presented its report to the Executive Office last year. Even though it had worked on this for a considerable time before publishing the report in December, to me the report simply kicked the can down the road. No forward plan or action plan was produced, despite a delay of some two years in the report’s publication. It concluded that paramilitary flags—which are different from the union flag and the tricolour—and murals should not be displayed, but there was no plan from the commission to deal with this. Therefore, I ask the Minister to use his good offices with the Northern Ireland Executive, and in particular the Ministers in the Executive Office, to find out when they will bring forward a plan and when they will have discussions with the Government, under the strand one commitments of the Good Friday agreement, to deal with these issues. I am in no doubt that, to build that shared society, we require mutual understanding, reconciliation and, above all, respect for political difference.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear outline of the purpose of the legislation and his explanation of the provisions in it. It deals with some necessary amendments demanded to meet life’s realities. I once again pay tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who not only gave sterling service to the nation but had a particularly important role in promoting relationships within Northern Ireland, especially through participation in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

These amendments remove Prince Philip’s birthday and Her Majesty the Queen’s wedding day from the list of designated days to fly the union flag. I regret this is necessary, but I accept its reality. It is also vital that we prepare for the death of our monarch, and in my heart I say, as I have often sung, “Long may she reign”. We are so privileged to have as our monarch the most remarkable woman in the world, whose integrity and strength of character have shone brightly in even the most difficult of circumstances. Her example is one that we all should seek to emulate.

I will make a few other remarks in the light of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I want to make it clear that there are not two flags for Northern Ireland; there is one—the flag of the United Kingdom. I respect the flag of the Irish Republic for what it is: the flag of the Irish Republic. I live in an area in which every day I face travelling down the road with a flag of a foreign country being flaunted in my face. That is in a neighbourhood where many people were murdered by the IRA. I believe, from the remarks that have already been made, that all noble Lords acknowledge that flags and emblems are a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. In reality, flags are important to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland, especially bearing in mind that many innocent people’s lives were taken to preserve our position within the United Kingdom. They were murdered because they believed in that reality.

However, before noble Lords today is a provision of reality. I therefore accept it. I regret only the limit to the designated days, because I would be delighted if our flag was flown across this United Kingdom every day and was looked on not as something divisive, but in acknowledgement of the great blessings and benefits it has brought to the people of all Northern Ireland.

My Lords, is not what the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, just said the civic ideal? Both flags could fly and it would not be an issue. I often think we are too prescriptive and ready to ban things. Surely the ideal of civil liberalism is not a world in which things are banned, but a world in which things are allowed and are not a problem. I used to think the same when we were having rows about the Orange walks and parades. The liberal ideal is not one in which they do not happen, but one in which they happen and no one is bothered by them. In the same way, would it not be a wonderful world if, for example when we were having the row about the flag over Belfast City Hall, one side said, “Do you know what? We didn’t know it meant that much to you. Go ahead”, and the other side said, “We didn’t want to upset you. Do you know what? We’ll be moderate and judicious”?

Of course, we are some way from that, but these regulations, bringing Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the country so that we have the same fundamental rules in the four home nations, are a step towards that civic ideal where we can all stand before flags—let me end, in a unifying spirit, with a quote from WB Yeats—

“Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost

In … its night-dark folds”.

My Lords, I was not intending to speak in this debate, but I will say the following. A flag shows a nation state; the union flag represents all the countries in the United Kingdom. They also have separate flags, as when we watch football at Wembley, if we are good enough to get there. We had this debate for many years over the European flag, which was never a flag but an emblem, because it did not represent a single sovereign state.

I do not want to make things difficult. I am all for making sure that people are inclusive and that we recognise people wherever they come from. I have many friends in the Republic of Ireland and my family came from Northern Ireland, which I suppose was part of the republic of Ireland a long time ago. While I acknowledge that we are communautaire, as we used to say in the European Union, and recognise these things —we want peace and we want people to collaborate—this is a sensitive issue. I will be grateful for my noble friend the Minister’s remarks at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lady Suttie, who is on a British Council delegation to Moscow which was delayed for a year. She has asked me to speak on her behalf. The New Decade, New Approach commitment aligned the flying of flags on designated days from government buildings in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK, as we have heard, with regard to the Belfast agreement. The Northern Ireland Assembly was consulted about the draft proposals and agreed them.

Bringing them up to date, following the sad death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, who had visited Northern Ireland 56 times, the draft instrument removes the need to fly the flag on his birthday, Her Majesty’s wedding day or any other day on which a designated member of the Royal Family dies. I am grateful to the Minister for laying that out. It stipulates that the union flag will be flown on the proclamation of a new monarch. The Liberal Democrats support the draft flags regulations.

My Lords, I just want to ask a couple of questions.

The Explanatory Note includes the words:

“provide that the Union flag need not be flown on the designated days”


“relate to a member of the Royal Family who has died.”

Surely that should be “shall not”? It would be wholly inappropriate and insensitive to fly a flag for a member of the Royal Family who is not alive.

Could I ask which members of the Royal Family are entitled to have flags flown—the children of the monarch, or those in direct line of succession? It would be useful to know. Sadly, there are members of the Royal Family for whom flags may, or perhaps may not, be flown but whose careers, as may be inevitable from time to time, perhaps do not progress as satisfactorily as one would wish and who find themselves in difficult circumstances discrediting their name. Is there provision for the removal of such members of the Royal Family from the entitlement to have flags flown?

It is surprising that there is no existing provision making it mandatory to fly our nation’s flag on the accession of the monarch, but it is gratifying to know that the situation will be rectified. Like other Conservative and Unionist Members—and the noble Lord, Lord McCrea—who have spoken in this debate, what I like most is that the regulations provide that days and times when the flag has to be flown will be consistent with formal guidance issued in respect of United Kingdom Government buildings in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is entirely right that, throughout our country on designated days, in all parts of our country—all four portions of our United Kingdom—the same flag under which we all live should be flown. It is splendid and wonderful to think that there will be days when Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Belfast will all be flying the emblem of our great nation.

An important day approaches, Accession Day on 6 February, marking the day in 1952 when our Queen ascended the Throne. I very much hope that that great day of 6 February will be marked in a way that is so right and appropriate, with the flag of our country flying in the four portions of our United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, has outlined the purpose of the regulations before us today, and, like other noble Lords, I am content to approve the regulations. As we have heard, the union flag will be flown on designated days on government and other buildings, and I very much support the proposal that the flying of the union flag in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

My noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick rightly set out that flags and emblems are a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, and respect for difference is so important. I was born in London, as your Lordships can probably tell, and the union flag is the flag of the country I love; my parents were born in the Republic of Ireland, and that is the flag of my ancestors, and I very much love Ireland as well. So I think those things go together.

As the noble Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, explained, sadly, these regulations are necessary since His Royal Highness passed away. I join with the noble Lord in his warm tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip on his work and public service throughout his life to our great country, and I join the noble Lord in his warm tribute to Her Majesty the Queen on the work that she has given to our nation. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in looking forward to the day that we celebrate Her Majesty’s accession to the Throne, as that will be a great day for our nation.

I very much support the regulations and look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate, in which we have, as anticipated, exceeded by some way the consideration and scrutiny provided in the other place. Rather than making a lengthy closing speech, I shall just pick up one or two of the comments that have been made by noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, in a typically thoughtful and constructive speech, made the point that Northern Ireland is a divided society and we have to respect both traditions. I completely agree with her and believe that the flag-flying regulations indeed conform to the letter and spirit of the commitments in the Belfast agreement, which states that:

“All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need … to ensure that”

they are used

“in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.”

I completely agree with that.

However, the flying of the union flag of course reflects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as determined by the principle of consent in the Belfast agreement. It is worth noting that in 2019 the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal ruled that the regulations

“should be regarded as a pragmatic reflection of the current reality of the constitutional position and actively consented to in accordance with the spirit of the Agreement that Irish people, North and South, signed up to.”

So the regulations are consistent with the Belfast agreement and with respect for both main traditions in Northern Ireland, reflecting, as I say, the constitutional position.

The noble Baroness referred to the flags commission established by the Stormont House agreement, which I remember all too well as part of the UK Government negotiating team during those 11 weeks of somewhat tortuous talks. As the noble Baroness will be aware, part of the delay in publication of the flags commission report was down to the fact that there was no Executive between 2017 and 2020, which delayed matters somewhat.

I am very happy to look into the points that the noble Baroness made regarding implementation, conscious of the fact that when we discussed this in the strand one discussions at Stormont House those seven-plus years ago, it was always understood by all participants that the flags commission was a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, not Her Majesty’s Government. I think I am right in saying that, when the commission finally reported last December, it had no recommendations to make in areas that are covered by the regulations before your Lordships today. However, I will look at the point she makes regarding discussions with the Executive over how this is taken forward.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, referred to the work of the Duke of Edinburgh over many years, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, whom I welcome to the Committee today—I am particularly pleased that she is speaking from the North Riding of God’s own county. I endorse everything that both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said about the Duke of Edinburgh over many decades—his tremendous record of service and duty to our nation—and I completely concur with the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, in his sentiments about Her Majesty’s the Queen, which I totally endorse. Long may she reign.

My noble friend Lord Hannan started off by referring to what might be regarded as an ideal world and then quickly qualified himself to make it clear that we were some distance from an ideal world when it came to the flying of flags in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lady Foster referred to the European Union emblem, as I think she called it. I think both my noble friends will be pleased to know that the requirements for flying the European Union emblem or flag—however you wish to describe it—on Europe Day was removed by the last update of these regulations.

In reply to my noble friend Lord Lexden, if anybody in the Committee could be allowed to speak up on some of the wording of the Explanatory Memorandum it is my noble friend, and I say that having had my work as a very young researcher in the Conservative research department edited by my noble friend over a long time. If my writing style has certainly improved over the years, my noble friend has played a huge role in that.

My noble friend referred to a particular point in the memorandum. The text of the regulations as amended means that flags are not flown for members of the Royal Family who have died. That should be fairly straightforward and clear, but if the Explanatory Memorandum is a little confusing, I will certainly take that point away.

I am grateful for the support for these regulations and the update from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the Opposition. As I said, the regulations are mainly technical in nature; they bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and fulfil a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach document from January 2020.

I asked whether it would be possible to establish which members of the Royal Family —children of the monarch and those in direct line of succession—this order applies to. Was there provision to remove the flying of the flag for members of the Royal Family whose careers, sadly, fall into some discredit?

On my noble friend’s first point, I have a list, which I do not intend to read out, but I can certainly come back to him on that matter. On my noble friend’s second point, that would really be a matter for the Palace to determine and is not something that I could pronounce on. It is way above my unpaid grade.

Motion agreed.