Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Wednesday 26th April 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Grand Committee
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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.