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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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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.