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Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022

Volume 824: debated on Monday 5 September 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022.

Relevant documents: 6th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the regulations before your Lordships today seek to align flag-flying days in Northern Ireland with the rest of our United Kingdom. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, for the then Labour Government, provided that, on certain designated days, the union flag and in certain circumstances other flags must—I repeat, must—be flown on 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 were extended to court buildings in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will also recall that the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, which saw the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a period of almost three years, contained a UK government commitment to:

“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 updated 2022 list of designated flag-flying days was published by DCMS on 11 February this year, and it states that Her Majesty the Queen’s two birthdays and the birthday of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales are the only royal birthdays to be observed for the purposes of flag flying. The regulations before your Lordships today will ensure that flag flying in Northern Ireland is aligned with this updated DCMS guidance and the policy followed across the rest of the UK. Prior to publishing the list of designated days, DCMS consulted a wide range of interested parties, individuals and bodies. I can confirm that the updated designated days reflect very clearly the wishes of the palace; the Committee should take note of that.

I understand that some Members will be disappointed that the number of designated flag-flying days in Northern Ireland will be reduced as a consequence of these regulations. I stress that our approach to flag flying in Northern Ireland through regulations has consistently sought to reflect Northern Ireland’s clear constitutional status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, as well as the reality of different political aspirations and sensitivities that exist across society.

I also point out that, as designated days are a matter of law in Northern Ireland, revised regulations must be considered by the Assembly ahead of being approved by both Houses of Parliament here in Westminster. I can inform noble Lords that, ahead of the most recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly considered and approved these regulations on 15 March this year.

The 2000 flags order also requires that consideration be given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement when making or amending flags regulations. I confirm that the Secretary of State is satisfied that these regulations are in accordance with the provisions of the Belfast agreement and that the regulations treat flags and emblems in a manner respectful of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.

The Government will continue to ensure that our approach to flag flying reflects the sovereignty of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland, our Belfast agreement commitments and the need for sensitivity. On that note, I look forward to contributions from noble Lords today but commend this largely technical instrument to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I apologise for delaying the Committee for some minutes. I completely abandoned my toasted teacake to get here very quickly; I had mistaken the time.

The Minister is right that it is a technical change, of course, but it reflects the significance of flags in Northern Ireland. This was a cause of great bewilderment to me when I first went there so many years ago—25 or 30 years ago—including the fact that one saw the Palestinian and Israeli flags: the Israeli flag generally in loyalist areas and the Palestinian one generally in nationalist areas. It reflects identity, not as Palestinians and Israelis—those are political choices—but rather the identity of people as they see themselves.

The law is clear. The flags to be flown on public buildings are flown on them because those buildings are part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, if the rules change in Great Britain, they should change in Northern Ireland as well.

It is quite interesting to read the Assembly’s proceedings on this particular statutory instrument. It was, as always, an intriguing and interesting debate that reflected the wider view on flags in Northern Ireland.

On balance, the issue has been dealt with sensitively over the last two decades, but there have been some notable exceptions, such as over Belfast City Hall some years ago, which caused a great deal of fuss. You have to be very careful in what you do about flags. It is pretty clear that this particular change was initiated by the palace. Noble Lords will ask why for themselves—I think it is pretty self-evident—but the commemoration of the birthdays of all the royals has had to be abandoned on the flagpoles of Northern Ireland as a consequence of what I think this change resulted from. The essence of this is that what happens in Britain happens in Northern Ireland as long as it remains part of the United Kingdom. Even if it did not, it would still have to have sensitivity about flags. However, it is still part of the United Kingdom, so I support the statutory instrument.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said, flags are a highly sensitive issue in Northern Ireland that can provoke very strong reactions. However, I shall be very brief, as the Liberal Democrats, and indeed Alliance in Northern Ireland, broadly support these measures, which reduce the allocation of designated days and align them with the rest of the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said.

Given that these regulations once again reduce rather than add to the number of designated days, could the Minister say whether further consideration has been given to adding to the number of days through commemorating the Battle of the Somme? As the Minister will know, when these regulations were debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly in March this year, my Alliance colleague, Andrew Muir, suggested making the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme a designated day. He then followed up with a letter to DCMS. This was strongly supported in Belfast City Hall, where earlier this year the birthday of Prince Andrew was substituted with the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme as a designated flag day.

As noble Lords will know, it is estimated that at least 3,500 lives were lost from across the island of Ireland during the Battle of the Somme from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. Can the Minister update us on whether further consideration has been given to this matter?

In seeking to support the Government today, it is vital to continue to stress the importance of respect, and of respecting how people feel about a flag and its symbolism, even if one does not entirely personally share or understand those sentiments.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for providing us with an overview of the legislation. Like my noble friend Lord Murphy and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I agree with and do not resile from the regulations. We can all have our own interpretation as to why they have been proposed.

There is a broader political point here, which my noble friend and the noble Baroness referred to, about the nature of flags in Northern Ireland. They are highly sensitive and mark out territory. Over the last few months, having had occasion to be at home permanently for some six and a half weeks, I have seen flags of all descriptions, representing two identities, in tatters on poles. If people had respect for their own identity and that of others, they would not allow that to happen. It does not necessarily happen solely with flags—it also happens with flagstones and kerbs—and it leaves the area environmentally in a pretty poor state.

We need to look to fulfil the ambition of the Good Friday agreement in respect of flags and identity through building the second process of the agreement, the healing and reconciliation process. I say to the Minister: with a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet this week, will the Government work with the Northern Ireland Executive—if we had one—to ensure that we do have one, and to ensure that we have all the institutions of government of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 up and running? Will they also work with the district councils to ensure that there is parity of esteem, respect for political difference and respect for all flags, and that this is done in a more sensitive, more appreciative way that reflects all the identities that have to be reflected?

Generally, Northern Ireland is a changing area, as is the island of Ireland. No longer can you talk of one and the other. Other nationalities have come to live there and their identities also have to be respected. The Good Friday agreement provided for that under the equality and human rights provisions. What respect and judgments have the Government given to that?

Finally, what proposals will be made for all-party talks involving both Governments to get the institutions up and running and to resolve the difficulties around the protocol and any other impediments to political institutions? The most important thing for people is having a functioning Government and dealing with the cost of living and the cost of doing business crises. Energy and food prices are immediate to people and are perhaps more important than flags at this moment.

My Lords, I had not planned to participate, but I give my full-throated support to what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, suggested. Not only is the Somme important in the iconography and history of the 36th (Ulster) Division, but it is often forgotten that more southern Irish Catholics died in British uniform during the Somme offensive than participated in the Easter Rising. That fact was for a long time brushed under the carpet. One of the more welcome signs of the approximation of the Governments in these islands is that those volunteers—they were all volunteers in Ireland—were eventually brought in and recognised, albeit long after the event.

It is a grisly memorial and a rather awful thing that we remember—the whole history of the world cannot contain a more horrible word, as one German veteran said. Yet it is something we all have in common in these islands, including me. I have a great-uncle whose name is carved on the rather skeletal memorial at Thiepval. Here is a suggestion with cross-community support and broad support in this House and in another place. It is something that I hope my noble friend the Minister will consider taking forward.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate on the instrument before us. I shall respond to one or two of the points raised.

I am very grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, managed to abandon his toasted teacake and get here in time to participate. I hope he can return to it, or a warmed-up version, at some point later this afternoon. He mentioned that the issue of flags is very sensitive, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. Of course, we all know why that is the case. I commend the initiative of the Labour Government back in 2000 in grappling with this issue, which was seen as rather too difficult for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly to resolve. As a consequence of their actions and those taken subsequently by this Government, we are in a much better place when it comes to the flying of flags from government buildings and there is a wide degree of consensus.

The noble Lord is right to remind the Committee of the difficulties that can arise, and I am well aware of what happened in Belfast from late 2012 well into 2013 with the decision on the flying of the union flag. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked whether we had worked with councils. We have, of course, but, as she is aware, flag flying from council buildings is not covered by the regulations but is a matter for district councils themselves. I will reflect on her suggestion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the possibility of making 1 July, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a designated day, and I have a great deal of sympathy with what she said. My noble friend Lord Hannan was very supportive. I have visited the Somme battlefield probably 11 or 12 times in the course of the past 12 years. I was there for the centenary in 2016, at the Lutyens memorial to the missing and the Ulster tower, and later in September that year. As my noble friend reminded us—it should never be forgotten—the contribution of the 36th (Ulster) Division on 1 July was heroic, as was the contribution of the 16th (Irish) Division in September 1916 at Guillemont and Ginchy. For those who have never visited, it is always a very moving occasion.

My noble friend talked about the number of southern Irishmen who gave their lives. When I was there last July, I managed to locate the inscription of a former Member of the other place, Tom Kettle, the MP for East Tyrone, whose name is one of the 72,000 on the Lutyens memorial. I think something like four out of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded at the Somme went to members of the 36th (Ulster) Division, so I am aware of its importance and resonance across Northern Ireland and the wider island of Ireland. In response to that specific request, I am very happy to take it up with DCMS, which I know regularly consults on the designated days. My personal view is that it is a very worthwhile suggestion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, asked about executive formation and so on. Of course, I am not yet in a position to second-guess what steps the new Prime Minister might take from tomorrow, and we are in a slight state of flux over the next 24 hours, but I am confident that the new Prime Minister and whoever might be the Secretary of State, whether it continues to be the current holder or it is a new appointment, will remain very committed to working as a matter of urgency to deal with problems around the protocol but also the impasse preventing the re-establishment and reformation of a Northern Ireland Executive.

None of us wishes to be in this situation. We all want to see the institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement fully functioning and up and running. On these occasions I always look to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who played such a key role in the negotiations, particularly on strand 1 of that agreement, back in 1998. It is my personal commitment and the Government’s that we wish to see devolved power-sharing government and the institutions that flow from that. We should never forget that strands 2 and 3 of the agreement do not function properly without strand 1. To get all the strands of that interlocking agreement back up and running will remain an absolute priority for Her Majesty’s Government.

The noble Baroness talked about parity of esteem in flag flying. These regulations deal only with the flying of flags from government buildings and, as I said in my opening remarks, they reflect the clear constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The agreement contains provisions on parity of esteem, but it is always sensible to remember that it never created a hybrid state; Northern Ireland is either part of the United Kingdom or part of a united Ireland, and I am very happy to say that it continues to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is always the need for sensitivity when it comes to such issues, and I hope that I reflected that in my opening comments.

This is a technical change that reflects the updated list published earlier this year by DCMS after consultation with the palace. It keeps Northern Ireland fully aligned with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Motion agreed.