Wednesday 26th April 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
16:15
Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.

Instrument not yet reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, the regulations before your Lordships today seek to align flag-flying days in Northern Ireland with the rest of our United Kingdom. A number of changes have recently been made to designated flag-flying days across the UK, following the sad passing of Her late Majesty the Queen in September last year.

The updated list of designated flag-flying days for 2023 was published by DCMS on 9 February. It states that all dates related to Her late Majesty the Queen are removed and several new entries relating to His Majesty the King are added, including the Coronation Day on 6 May, a week on Saturday. There will be a new flag-flying day for the birthday of the Queen and the date of the Prince of Wales’s birthday will be amended.

The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 provided that on certain designated days the union flag and, in certain circumstances, other flags must be flown on government buildings. For the purposes of these regulations, a Northern Ireland government building is one that is occupied wholly or mainly by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 2000 regulations also set out a number of so-called specified buildings at which the union flag must be flown on the designated days in question. Those buildings were chosen as they are the headquarters of Northern Ireland government departments. In 2002, the provisions were extended to court buildings in Northern Ireland. A number of noble Lords will recall that the New Decade, New Approach document of January 2020 contained a UK Government commitment to align flag-flying days across the whole United Kingdom.

The regulations before your Lordships today will align flag-flying in Northern Ireland 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 range of interested parties and individuals; I can confirm that the updated designation days reflect the wishes of the Palace. Last year, some noble Lords voiced their disappointment that the number of designated flying days was being reduced. These new dates will increase the number of flag-flying days in Northern Ireland by two, bringing the total to 10.

Our approach to flag flying in Northern Ireland through the flags regulations has consistently sought, as I have set out on a number of occasions, to reflect Northern Ireland’s clear and unambiguous constitutional status as an integral part of our United Kingdom, as well as the reality of the different political aspirations that exist across society. The Secretary of State referred the draft regulations to the Assembly on 17 February, as he is required to do, but as the Assembly is not currently sitting, Members have been unable to report back in the usual manner. Taking this into consideration, the Secretary of State has committed to laying the Assembly’s report in Parliament should it be drafted at a later point. In addition, the Secretary of State wrote to all Northern Ireland political leaders to allow a further opportunity for elected representatives to express their views on this issue. I am pleased to report that no concerns were raised.

The flags order of 2000 also requires that consideration be given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement when making or amending the regulations. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is satisfied that these regulations have regard to the Belfast agreement and treat flags and emblems in a manner that is 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, and our overall commitments under the Belfast agreement. I look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords today, I commend this instrument to the Committee and beg to move.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I have to say that of course flags are always a real difficulty in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that the Minister referred to the Good Friday agreement and the fact that this order should not in any way contravene the principles behind it of parity of esteem. I am also delighted to hear that, on consultation, no political parties in Northern Ireland offered any objection to this. Nor should there be. We on this side of the Committee will support the statutory instrument and do so willingly. It means that we can reflect, of course, on what the late Queen and the present King thought about Northern Ireland issues and how much they were involved in them.

16:21
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
16:31
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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I apologise to your Lordships for jumping the queue; apparently, I should have been at the end rather than at the beginning. I particularly apologise to my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I have known him for 26 years and this is the first time that, although we have not quite fallen out, something went wrong with our relationship.

I shall not keep your Lordships long; I shall simply say two things. Her late Majesty took a deep interest in the future of Northern Ireland. Interestingly, of course, she visited the Republic of Ireland in 2011 and made a huge impact not just there but in Northern Ireland. She was particularly interested in the peace process, as, of course, is His Majesty the King. From my experience, he would host dinners and other events at Hillsborough Castle on a number of occasions, and he took a deep interest in Northern Ireland, the peace process, and many other issues. It is fitting, having heard that no party has objected to the change to these regulations, that the King should know that there is unanimity in Northern Ireland about his position.

I have one point about the consultation. The Minister said that his Secretary of State has consulted the political parties in Northern Ireland, but, of course, he could not consult the Assembly because there is no Assembly. Last week, the Minister and I, and others, were in Belfast to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that it is a matter of weeks or months —definitely not years—before we see the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland. I know that the King himself would be very much in favour of that, to see that there is stability and peace in Northern Ireland. He obviously does not comment on political issues in Northern Ireland, but all of us want some sort of settlement there. I hope that happens fairly soon.

Lord Rogan Portrait Lord Rogan (UUP)
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My Lords, the flying of the union flag in Northern Ireland can sometimes be a contentious issue, but it should not be so. This month has seen a series of high-profile events in the Province to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast agreement. Friday 10 April 1998 is a day I remember well and with a certain degree of pride. As my late noble friend Lord Trimble said in his lecture when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1998, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement

“showed that the people of Northern Ireland are no petty people. They did good work that day”.

Indeed they did, but as current and former Presidents and Prime Ministers have rightly insisted in different lectures over the past few weeks, the Belfast agreement was about mutual respect. It was also about not being petty. As such, I see no reason why anyone should object to the flying of the union flag in Northern Ireland, which the Belfast agreement enshrined as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

As we know, the regulations before us are being brought forward following the passing of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She was a great friend and servant to Northern Ireland. The 19 year-old Princess Elizabeth first visited the Province of Ulster in 1945 as part of the victory tour after the Second World War. She was accompanied by her father, King George VI, and her mother, Queen Elizabeth. Two further visits followed before she ascended the Throne.

In all, she made 22 visits to Northern Ireland as our monarch. Her final trip, in June 2016, included a visit to Bushmills, where she unveiled a statue of local man Robert Quigg, who had received the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy in the Battle of the Somme. The royal visit and the unveiling of that monument was a proud day for a fiercely proud and loyal village in Portrush. After civilian service in the Army, Robert returned to Bushmills and was presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Coleraine on her Coronation tour in 1953. That fact feels particularly poignant, given the reason we are debating these regulations today.

Looking at the detail of the regulations, it is understandable why the dates relating specifically to the life of Her late Majesty are being substituted for those relating to His Majesty King Charles III. However, surely it would have been appropriate to keep at least one of these dates in the calendar for the union flag to be flown in Northern Ireland in her glorious memory—either the date of Her late Majesty’s accession or her birthday seem most appropriate.

Noble Lords will have noticed that, while six dates are being removed from the regulations, they are being replaced by only five. I ask the Minister: would it not have made more sense for Monday 8 May, which will be a bank holiday in celebration of His Majesty’s Coronation, to also have been included? I see no logical argument against it and respectfully invite the Minister to try to prove me wrong.

While I have his attention, I also ask him for an assurance that these regulations will apply to Erskine House, with the union flag flying proudly above it on designated days as an absolute minimum. It defies comprehension that the headquarters of His Majesty’s Government in Northern Ireland does not currently fly the national flag. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it will now fly.

I am privileged to have been invited to attend the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III next week. I am very much looking forward to it. I also look forward to the union flag flying from government buildings in Northern Ireland, including Erskine House, on 6 May, His Majesty’s Coronation Day, for many years to come. Long may he reign.

Lord Browne of Belmont Portrait Lord Browne of Belmont (DUP)
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My Lords, there is nothing in these regulations that one could disagree with, so I am pleased to support them. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, the flying of flags and displaying of emblems in Northern Ireland can be, and is, an extremely contentious issue among Northern Ireland’s unfortunately divided community. In the past, we have seen it lead to civil disturbance; I hope those days have long passed. To reiterate what my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, in Northern Ireland government buildings are legally restricted to flying these flags on designated days, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom which has the option to fly the flag every day.

I too have a question for the Minister, who I know will be able to answer it well because he has had considerable experience in the Northern Ireland Office. It is over a year since the Northern Ireland Office relocated to its very fine building, Erskine House, in the centre of Belfast, which is eight storeys high. It is my understanding that Erskine House is not bound by these regulations. Can the Minister say whether the department has made any decision on whether to fly the flag every day, on the designated days, or not at all?

On the visit of the President of the United States to Belfast, which people welcomed, many have commented that his official state car did not display the union flag, which I understand is the normal protocol when a head of state visits. Perhaps the Minister can update me on what the protocol is.

Finally, for the celebrations of the Coronation, I am sure that those who wish to display the union flag will fly it with dignity and respect.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, it has been an interesting short debate. I too shall be brief because, clearly, the Liberal Democrats also support the regulations that we are debating today.

As other noble Lords have said, the debate is perhaps an opportunity to remember the late Queen Elizabeth II and all that she did to strengthen the United Kingdom and our relations with Ireland during that extremely historic visit.

I hope the Minister may recall that when we last debated designated flag days last September, I asked him whether further consideration had been given to adding to the number of days through commemorating the Battle of the Somme. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, gave their support to the idea. Have the Government reached a view on adding that battle to the designated flag days?

While I support the regulations, I think it vital that we repeat the importance of respecting how people feel about the flag and its symbolism. I also support what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said about hoping that the Northern Ireland Assembly returns as soon as possible.

I sincerely hope that the Coronation goes smoothly and enjoyably, and that the festivities go well in Northern Ireland as well as elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the wider world.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to those who have contributed to this short but well-informed and important debate on the regulations before us. As seems customary on these occasions, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, with whom I concur on virtually everything he said. He and other speakers, including the noble Baroness, my noble friend Lord Rogan and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, rightly paid tribute to the legacy of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Like other noble Lords, I was privileged to be present at some of those historic occasions; for example, the handshake in the Lyric Theatre in 2012 during the Diamond Jubilee tour of Northern Ireland. Like my noble friend Lord Rogan, I was also present at Bushmills on that day in 2016 when Her late Majesty unveiled the statue of Robert Quigg. It was a poignant and moving ceremony.

I agree also with what has been said about His Majesty the King and his deep commitment to Northern Ireland. Without in any way going into private conversations, I think we can all be confident that His Majesty will do everything to maintain the marvellous legacy of his late mother, whose ability to bring people together from across the community divide in Northern Ireland was a remarkable achievement. I am sure that will continue under His Majesty.

I also agree, of course, with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, about the need to get the Assembly back up and running and this being an absolute priority. My noble friend Lord Rogan referred to the events of 25 years ago, with which he was intimately associated—as was the noble Lord who chaired strand 1 of the talks. He referred to the fact that we were together at Queen’s last week for some events to mark the 25th anniversary. It reminded us how important it is to get these institutions back up and running as quickly as possible so that we can start to build a Northern Ireland that works in the interests of the whole community there; that is the surest foundation for Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.

16:45
In respect of a couple of the questions that my noble friend Lord Rogan put to me, I think he raised the issue of a further bank holiday. As I said in my opening remarks, the changes made in these regulations are at the request of the palace so, in these circumstances, all the Government are doing is reflecting the wishes of the palace as communicated to us. However, I understand and take the point made by my noble friend; as I say, they are the palace’s wishes that we are reflecting in these regulations.
Both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the position in Erskine House. I am afraid it is slightly complicated. As the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Office, Erskine House does not fall within these regulations for the reasons I set out in my opening speech. For the purposes of the regulations, government buildings in Northern Ireland are those occupied mainly by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as Northern Ireland government departments. The Northern Ireland Office does not fall into that category. There are also further complications in that the Northern Ireland Office does not own the building and is not the lead tenant in the building; this has complicated matters somewhat.
However, I completely share my noble friend Lord Rogan’s aspiration to resolve this issue as quickly as possible and see the union flag fly in an appropriate place in Erskine House on designated days, if not more. I assure him that I will take this issue back, work with my officials and urge them to seek an early resolution of this issue because it is appropriate that the union flag should fly in some form in that building. As my noble friend will know, when one walks into the building, one sees “UK Government” in large letters and the UK Government’s crest is there so, personally, I see no reason why the flag of the United Kingdom should not be there in some form. I will take this issue back and seek a quick resolution. I am, however, mindful that it took me six years to get the flagpole at Stormont House re-erected after the 2010 election; I will try to resolve this issue in a somewhat shorter time than that.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, referred to President Biden’s visit and the flying of the union flag. I think that the issue there—I will double-check this; if I am wrong, I will come back to the noble Lord—was simply that President’s Biden visit to Northern Ireland was not a state visit and the protocols on flag-flying relate to state visits. His visit to the Republic of Ireland was a state visit, which is why the flag flew there. In my discussions, a great deal of care was taken to follow the right protocols to the letter; that is the reason behind this.
Finally, on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I am afraid that she has caught me out. I cannot immediately give her an answer on where we have got to with her suggestion about 1 July becoming a public holiday as the anniversary of the first day of the Somme. However, I will take that back and find out where we are with it; obviously, it is mainly a matter for DCMS rather than the Northern Ireland Office but I will go back and find out where we are.
I hope I have covered everything. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who contributed.
Motion agreed.