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Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020.

My Lords, the draft regulations were laid before the House on 23 September.

The flying of a specific flag can represent an important symbol, with wider implications of what that act means by way of a sense of identity or cultural heritage. It is from this perspective that flag flying from government buildings and courthouses in Northern Ireland has been regulated by the Government, via Westminster regulations, since 2000. This followed earlier political disagreements in Northern Ireland regarding adherence to the relevant guidance on the matter.

The regulations made in 2000 therefore sought to prescribe the designated days that the union flag and, in certain circumstances, other flags must be flown on government buildings and courthouses in Northern Ireland. The regulations impose a legal requirement that must be followed for 16 days currently—soon to be 19 days—out of the year, as I shall explain.

The current 16 days to be observed by flying the union flag cover a range of royal birthdays and specific days that mark important milestones for the nations coming together as one union, such as Coronation Day, Commonwealth Day, and Remembrance Day—events that are recognised and celebrated right across the UK.

The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 sets out the clear process which must be followed in order to amend the flags regulations of 2000, respecting the devolution settlement and allowing the views of elected representatives on the ground in Northern Ireland to be considered. This includes referring any proposed amendments to the Northern Ireland Assembly for it to consider and on which to report its views to the Secretary of State before any regulations are made in Westminster.

The instrument before the Committee today delivers on a commitment made by the Government with respect to flag flying in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that saw the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland earlier this year. That commitment was to update the flags regulations to bring the list of designated flag-flying days from Northern Ireland government buildings and courthouses into line with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s designated days—meaning that, going forward, the same designated days will be observed in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. This will involve the addition of three designated days: the birthdays of the Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cornwall. This amendment will bring designated flag-flying days for Northern Ireland government buildings and courthouses into line with those observed elsewhere in the United Kingdom through guidance issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport each year.

The first new birthday to be observed—that of the Duchess of Cambridge—will be recognised on 9 January, hence our proceeding now while parliamentary time allows to deliver on this NDNA commitment.

The second amendment relates to the list of specified buildings in Northern Ireland. This list has not been amended since the 2000 regulations were made, when a decision was taken that the relevant buildings would be the headquarters of Northern Ireland departments. However, the list needs updating as it includes a building, Churchill House, that was demolished in 2004, and does not include two buildings that have since become the headquarters of Northern Ireland government departments in recent years. Therefore, this instrument removes Churchill House from the list of specified buildings and adds Clare House, the headquarters of the Department of Finance, and Causeway Exchange, the headquarters of the Department for Communities, to that list in the regulations.

As per the requirements set out in the 2000 order, the Secretary of State wrote to the Assembly Speaker, Alex Maskey, on 1 September asking that the Assembly consider and debate the draft regulations. A letter was sent back from the Speaker on 14 September reporting the views of the Assembly back to the Secretary of State. I am pleased to note that the Assembly took the opportunity to debate this matter robustly, as one might expect. Naturally, the contributions to the debate highlighted the different views that Members hold on the issue, but overall, no concerns were raised with the regulations being taken forward as per the NDNA commitment. I thank the Members and the Assembly for the time they have taken to carefully consider the instrument and report back views for us to move forward with delivery of these regulations.

Noble Lords will be very aware, as I am, of the range of key priorities being taken forward for Northern Ireland at present, from a range of debates we have recently had in this place. However, on this, I am pleased to say that it seems to be a more straightforward delivery of one of our NDNA commitments. For the record, we completely recognise the importance of flag flying and the related culture and identity matters in Northern Ireland. I note that this is but one commitment in the overall package of wider commitments we have made with respect to language, culture and identity issues for Northern Ireland under the NDNA and work is ongoing to deliver the other commitments in full at the earliest opportunity.

The 2000 flags order also requires regard to be shown to the Belfast agreement when making or amending flags regulations. In practice, this ensures that any changes appropriately balance the issues of recognition of all identities, diversity and tolerance, consistent with the principles and spirit of the Belfast agreement. I am satisfied that these regulations, like the 2000 regulations that they amend, comply with the Belfast agreement by reflecting Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom in a balanced and proportionate manner.

I note as a point of interest that the House of Commons debated this instrument on 21 October in very short order. I look forward to hearing the contributions from noble Lords today. I commend the draft order to the Committee and I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the order. It was in 2005 that a joint protocol was issued in relation to the display of flags in public areas, and later in 2011, the consultation document on the programme for cohesion, sharing and integration identified “developing shared space” which talked about cultural identity as a long-term theme for action, which included the flying of flags. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission also issued a paper which was intended to provide assistance to those making decisions on flags, symbols or emblems in Northern Ireland and cited the applicable international human rights standards as well as a whole plethora of international instruments which NIHRC cites, as well as standards proposed by the UN and regional HR bodies. I commend its document to noble Lords.

A lot of work has been carried out by Northern Ireland departments relating to flags, and it has been accepted as a symbol of sovereignty that, as we have heard, the union flag reflects the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the provisions set out in the Belfast Good Friday agreement 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, voted for this. The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 govern the flying of flags in Northern Ireland, as we have also heard.

Today, we are simply talking about flags flown from government buildings and courthouses. As we have heard, the Secretary of State has the power to make regulations regarding the flying of flags on these buildings. Today, we are deciding on a permit to alter those regulations under the 2000 order, which the Northern Ireland Assembly discussed on 14 September at Stormont. The discussion was robust, not least because, when the devolved Government were restored—almost a year ago now—the British and Irish Governments agreed on New Decade, New Approach, which committed both Governments to making the list of designated flag-flying days in Northern Ireland the same as in the rest of the UK. Summing up the debate in the Assembly, UUP Member Robbie Butler made reference to the sensitivities around debates about flags, saying that they have been

“a cause of much angst and many sad debates”.

Most Members felt that it was time to move on and that there were far more important issues for the Assembly to deal with, although inevitably there were differing views.

We debated this on 25 March last year, when we deleted the designated status of the Europe Day flag—with some disappointment on my part, I might add—but this order adds three more designated days when the union flag is to be flown and deletes a now-demolished building, which is sensible. It also adds two more Northern Ireland Government departments. Northern Ireland has many more important policy decisions to make. We should move more swiftly and agree this order. I wish the Assembly well in its future deliberations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these new regulations. As he has said, under them, Northern Ireland will have three additional days. This brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is important. I also believe that the new regulations recognise Northern Ireland’s Britishness—that it is part of the United Kingdom—and our place firmly within the union. It is important to ensure that Northern Ireland maintains the same statutory days as the rest of the United Kingdom.

As the Minister said, these regulations arise out of the New Decade, New Approach document, which was published in January with agreement from all sides. It was welcomed in Northern Ireland and allowed the Assembly to get back up and running again. I think that that was welcomed by the whole of the population in Northern Ireland at the time. My understanding is that there was a robust debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on these new regulations, as some Members have already said.

I recognise that flags can be a controversial issue in Northern Ireland for some people; they have caused many debates there. I believe that the flag of our country should be treated with respect and should not be flown in a provocative way or a manner that creates a problem for another community. This is an important day for Northern Ireland because, as I said, the regulations bring it more closely in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some Members continually quote the Belfast agreement but, whatever else it can be faulted for, it involved—we were told—an acceptance of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. If that is correct, how can there be resistance to the flying of the flag of the United Kingdom on government buildings in Northern Ireland? If there is a recognition that we are part of the United Kingdom, I would have thought that one would follow the other. Can the Minister assure us that the flag of our country will fly on designated public buildings in Northern Ireland, especially when Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary next year?

The next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. Lord Rogan? We will move on and try to come back to the noble Lord in case he is having difficulties. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this statutory instrument. While this is very much a technical amendment, it is worth recognising that flags in Northern Ireland can sometimes be controversial and go to the very heart of our society and community. I acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, said: that the union flag should be displayed in a respectful way.

I come from the democratic Irish nationalist tradition and see a need for two flags on government buildings to reflect the partisan nature of our society. Northern Ireland is divided. Sadly, flags are used on many occasions to mark out territory, define identity and cause internecine conflict between two traditions. That situation is more heightened at different times of the year. I do not agree that that should be the case because flags of whichever hue or tradition they represent should be treated with respect by those who wish to fly them and by others who may not necessarily be of that tradition.

In the early days of the Northern Ireland Assembly, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hay, was a Member, I served under him when he was Speaker. In 1998, an ad hoc committee on flags was established. We all recall that, at that stage, the various parties defined their position according to identity but there was no particular outcome. Out of the Stormont House agreement emerged the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. It first met in June 2016 and forwarded its report in the middle of this year to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—but, significantly, it has not been published. Perhaps the Minister could find out the reason for the hold-up and when its publication and a debate on it in the Assembly are likely to take place.

Quite honestly, with our population suffering from the ravages of Covid and our economy to be impacted by Brexit, we need to move on to reconciliation and the healing process. I think of the words of my late former party leader, John Hume, who, along with others, was instrumental in providing the framework based on relationships that led to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. When it was signed, he said there was a necessity to move on to reconciliation and a healing process. Undoubtedly, flags must be part of that, as well as cultural identity, language and symbols. We must reach consensus around that and show that we are moving on.

Unfortunately, that healing process has not yet taken place, hence the conflict around flags, symbols and parades. There needs to be recognition and acceptance by us all, and all of society, of the value of each of the two traditions, including a respect by each tradition of the other and a level of mutual understanding. I hope that this debate can propel the necessary discussion that needs to take place on healing and reconciliation. Can the Minister provide us with an update on the implementation of New Decade, New Approach, particularly in relation to cultural identity and language commitments?

I was Minister in the Department for Social Development, which was the original department and forerunner to the Department for Communities. Along with the then First and Deputy First Ministers, we spearheaded, shall we say, the development that became the Victoria House regeneration project, which replaced Churchill House. That was 2007 to 2010, and Churchill House was long demolished at that stage. I find that an interesting piece of history none the less.

I also ask the Minister to indicate what he and his colleagues could do with the Irish Government, as joint guarantors of the agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and political parties to bring about that necessary healing process, which requires respect for political difference, mutual understanding, the lessening of fear, and the building of confidence with our various traditions in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. In no way would I want to go before her. I also thank the Minister for introducing these regulations this evening. I welcome the regulations and, in particular, the three additional dates on which the union flag will now be flown on government buildings in Northern Ireland.

The regulations stem from the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was signed up to by the DUP and Sinn Féin/IRA in January as a precursor to the return of devolved government in Stormont. But despite assenting to this document, Sinn Féin/IRA has characteristically reverted to type and sought to undermine and ridicule those provisions of greatest importance to the pro-union members of the community. This includes the flag regulations we are discussing this evening.

Speaking in the Assembly debate on this subject in September, the Sinn Féin/IRA MLA Emma Sheerin described the flying of the union flag above Parliament buildings and other civic areas as “somewhat tired”. She added that even holding the debate itself was

“at best bizarre and inappropriate and at worst insulting.”

Speaking in the same debate, her party colleague John O’Dowd, a former Education Minister in the Northern Ireland Administration, said:

“This is a take-note debate, and, at the end of this, we will vote that we have taken note of it. That should be in no way interpreted by the Secretary of State or by anyone in or beyond the Chamber that we support the motion that we need to fly more flags, because we do not.”

Republicans often claim that they want to build a “shared future” with their unionist neighbours based on mutual respect, but there is little evidence that their words are little more than hollow platitudes. Next year marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland and the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today. It is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all that is good about the Province and its people and our union, with its diverse peoples and cultures. The centenary will also provide a unique vehicle to promote Northern Ireland’s many attractions as a place to visit. This could not have happened at a better time, given the horrific damage Covid-19 has done and continues to do to the local tourism and hospitality sectors.

However, last week, all the Sinn Féin/IRA and, I am sorry to say, SDLP representatives on Derry City and Strabane District Council could do was vote that their local authority should not participate in any commemorative or celebratory events related to the centenary. The motion was carried. As your Lordships can imagine, this decision has caused great disappointment and anger to unionist people, not just in that council area but across Northern Ireland in general.

I am a unionist to my fingertips and always will be, but I am also a democrat. I have no objection to those holding a diametrically opposed view to mine, on condition that they seek to achieve their political objectives through peaceful means alone. However, the Belfast agreement was rooted in the principle of mutual respect for the two traditions—unionism and nationalism—that coexist on the island of Ireland. It does no one any favours when, on matters such as the flag regulations we are discussing today, local politicians whose parties signed up to New Decade, New Approach refuse to adhere to the spirit in which that document was agreed. I support the regulations.

I start by paying tribute to the PSNI and the effective way in which it has dealt with the incidents in Derry/Londonderry and Belfast in the past 24 hours. They are a reminder of the fragility of the peace process, which none of us should ever take for granted. I also thank the Minister for his introduction to these regulations.

As other noble Lords have said, the regulations before us today implement a commitment set out in New Decade, New Approach. When the Northern Ireland Executive was restored in January this year it was agreed that designated flag flying days in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, we therefore support these regulations, which are carrying out that commitment.

As other noble Lords have said, flags as symbols are a sensitive issue and can provoke strong feelings, as we have heard in the debate this afternoon. Equally, they can provoke strong negative reactions. Ultimately, it is about respect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said so powerfully this afternoon, and respecting how people feel about a flag and its symbolism, even if you do not entirely share or understand those sentiments. Like other noble Lords, I have read the debate on these regulations in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 September, and there, too, the strength of feeling from Assembly Members was made extremely clear.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement was a long time coming. The three years when there was no Executive did not serve the people of Northern Ireland well. Agreement to move on was very much to be welcomed, but there is still so much to be done to make further progress. I therefore repeat the remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that it would be useful to hear from the Minister today in his reply to this debate whether the Government have drawn up a timetable for the implementation of other sections of that agreement and whether a report on progress will be forthcoming, not least on legacy issues and future long-term funding.

January this year, when the New Decade, New Approach agreement was signed, now feels a very long time ago, a time when we could still live and travel freely, a time before we had even heard of Covid-19. Northern Ireland is now into its second week of its second lockdown, with all the consequences on society and economy that it brings, and people and businesses in Northern Ireland still face ongoing uncertainty provoked by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol and additional uncertainties stemming from the internal market Bill.

I conclude by agreeing with my Alliance Party colleague Kellie Armstrong, who said during the debate on these regulations in the Northern Ireland Assembly,

“all I ask is that we show each other respect.”

She went on:

“it is time for us to move forward.”

My Lords, this has been a short but interesting debate which goes to the heart of the issue which has dominated Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement: that of parity of esteem and respect for everybody in Northern Ireland irrespective of the community or background from which one comes. On the surface, this seems a particularly innocuous statutory instrument, especially as we are debating it in such turbulent and difficult times. We are talking about three royal birthdays and two government buildings, and flags flying accordingly, but as your Lordships have said, it is not as simple as that. Certainly, the debate in the Assembly highlighted the strong feelings that still exist in Northern Ireland about the nature of flags.

Flags are not going to go away, but they can be respected. Each and every one of us should respect the flags which are respected by other people and communities. In press conferences in Scotland or Wales over the last number of months, we have seen the saltire or the Welsh dragon by the respective First Ministers. That is a sign of respect for those countries. In Northern Ireland, of course, it is much more complicated, but there should still be that respect. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, outlined eloquently how important it is, whatever we are doing, to ensure there is such parity of esteem and respect.

It is not easy. Flags have been abused an awful lot during the past 40 or 50 years—waved and used in a way that they should not be—but they also reflect identity. At the heart of the issue of Northern Ireland when we come to try to get a reconciliation is the need to respect people’s identities, and that includes respecting the symbols of their identities as well.

This statutory instrument reflects the New Decade, New Approach agreement, when it brought designated flag-flying days into line with the United Kingdom. That was agreed between the parties in Northern Ireland, so I obviously support this statutory instrument, as I am sure will everybody else today. However, it has to be done against the background of ensuring that people are respected irrespective of how they look at the issue of flags. As many have said, the debate in the Assembly showed varying views about the flags.

I join your Lordships in asking the Minister about the other issues in New Decade, New Approach, particularly the meetings of the joint board, and whether we are seeing some progress despite the fact that, inevitably, the whole of Northern Ireland politics and government, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, is dominated by Covid-19. We should go on addressing those issues which can bring about reconciliation and which can ensure that, once all this terrible business is over, Northern Ireland continues with an Assembly and an Executive and the path to reconciliation so well established in the Good Friday agreement 22 years ago.

My Lords, I thank all Peers who have spoken for their overall support for these regulations. It was cheering to note that many speeches repeated some parts of mine, which shows that there is a consensus around this Committee. I recognise that flag flying in Northern Ireland can sometimes be a divisive issue, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, and that there will be differing views about this statutory instrument and the underlying principles of the regulations.

I thought I might start by going back to note the judgment last year of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, which ruled that the 2000 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.”

It went on to state that the measure

“prefers neither one community over another, nor does it hold one individual in higher esteem than another. It is not discriminatory. It simply reflects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.”

With some opening remarks, that sums up the debate rather well.

It is good to see that Members agree with me that the changes proposed in this particular instrument are balanced and proportionate. In line with the commitment made by the Government in New Decade, New Approach, the number of designated flag-flying days listed in the regulations will not exceed those observed in the rest of the UK, while the addition of two specified buildings ensures consistency with the intent of the 2000 regulations.

I recognise that this is just one commitment made under the NDNA. While we have made good progress on delivering its range of important commitments, we still have more to do.

That brings me nicely to the questions raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris of Richmond and Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, spoke movingly about the importance of flags, identity and culture, and this allows me to expand a bit on her remarks. There is more work to do on the other language and cultural commitments that the Government are delivering under the NDNA. The Government are committed to recognising Ulster Scots as a national minority. We are also committed to delivering additional funding for Northern Ireland Screen to broaden the remit of the existing Ulster Scots and Irish language broadcasting funds. I reassure the Committee that this work is ongoing and we hope to deliver on these important commitments before the end of the year.

I will say a little more about the importance of Irish language legislation. It is essential that the Executive also move forward with their commitments under the NDNA agreement, including the important commitments on language, culture, identity and associated legislation. I again reassure the Committee that we continue to engage with the Executive in this regard. As I said earlier, there are many other key priorities that are very much alive and ongoing in Northern Ireland.

I move on to an important interesting question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, about flying flags on centenary day. It is interesting to note that, as far as I am aware—I will check on this—no actual day officially marks the centenary. This could be debated, but I reassure the Committee that we want to use the centenary to promote Northern Ireland as an attractive place to visit and do business, to celebrate the contribution that the people of Northern Ireland make to all aspects of life in the UK and further afield, and to develop a better understand of our shared history. In August, the Prime Minister visited Northern Ireland, where he announced the establishment of a centenary forum and historical advisory panel, ensuring that we listen to their diverse perspectives as we create a bold and ambitious centenary programme. Both those groups have now met and their composition was recently confirmed, publicly. Although I cannot give a precise answer to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hay, he has raised an important point about the centenary date. It is as yet uncertain and not mentioned in these regulations. We will keep in touch with him as matters progress.

I focus now on the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. I was delighted that we are debating again so soon after the water boundaries regulations last week, when the noble Baroness made a moving speech, focusing on her role in the constituency of Carlingford Lough. I was interested to hear her strike the right chord in this debate, which was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and other noble Lords, in the importance that she gave to reconciliation. I was pleased and rather moved when she brought up the name of the late John Hume, bearing in mind the huge amount of work that he did in Northern Ireland to help bring about peace. I also note, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that the words “respect” and “mutual recognition” formed an important part of this debate. They resonate around this Committee.

I also bring up some points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, who made a strong speech about the importance of the Belfast agreement. In agreeing with him, I say this. We must continue to have proper regard for the Belfast Good Friday agreement. I am clear as to our legal duties in this regard. These changes do not amend the principles that underpin the 2000 regulations, as I said earlier. The changes are minimal, yet important, to bring Northern Ireland in line with the practice taken at UK Government level. I am of the view that the changes appropriately balance issues of recognition of all identities, diversity and tolerance, consistent with the principles and spirit of the Belfast agreement. I hope that nails down the point raised by the noble Lord.

I hope that I have covered the majority of the questions. I will certainly read Hansard to check that I have answered all the questions raised. In the meantime, I am pleased to be delivering this commitment on flag flying today—one of the measures that, as I said earlier, forms part of our wider commitments relating to language, culture and identity. I commend this draft order to the Committee, and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.

My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, respecting social distancing, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I must ask Members in the room to wear a face covering, except when seated at their desk, to speak sitting down and to wipe down their desk, chair and any other touch points before and after use. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House the Committee will adjourn for five minutes.

The time limit is one hour. Before I call the Minister, I inform the Grand Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has withdrawn, so after the Minister I will call the noble Lord, Lord Stephen.