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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 17 October 2000 (continued)

Ms McWilliams:

I return to a similar point that was made yesterday. If we knew that that would happen, we would perhaps be in a better position to argue. The Member is making an assumption, but it is purely hypothetical. If the scheme is piloted we will get more information.

Mr Wells:

Will the Member give way?

Ms McWilliams:

I have already given way to the Member. If he wishes to put his name down to speak, he should by all means do so, but I will not give way unless he has an additional point to make. I want a thorough debate on this, for it is extremely important.

I say to Mr Jim Wells that there are diversionary programmes, and the probation people are in favour of them and constantly seeking resources for them. It is up to the courts to put a person who has breached an order under surveillance. They say the programmes work. The only way to challenge a person's behaviour is to get to the presenting problem, rather than the symptom. We ought to be introducing these programmes, but since criminal justice is a reserved matter, we cannot talk about this here, other than to make reference to them.

We do not know that this will work. It could not only be dysfunctional, but increase poverty among families, and it would not be the offender who suffers but other members of the family. Despite the fact that departmental officials, through the Minister, are constantly producing notes to say that this will not be the case, they do not know if that is true, because the programmes have not even been piloted.

Mr Ford:

I do not intend to repeat everything that Ms McWilliams has said, as there seems to be enough repetition in this debate. However, I want to emphasise one point she made. Suffering will indeed centre on the family if joint-claim jobseekers are penalised and eventually levied. The notes claim that the measure would impact initially on couples without children; I think the use of the word "initially" makes the long-term intentions quite clear.

Sammy Wilson mentioned that I live in a leafy suburb - though that is not the description I would use myself. In my past life, before committing the major crime, in DUP eyes, of going to work for the Alliance Party, I was a social worker. During those years I worked in some of the less leafy parts of Antrim, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus. I know a little about how the people who are likely to be affected by this live and budget.

Some Members may suggest that families living on the breadline pool the money which comes in, categorise it under rent, dad, mum, first child, or second child and live their lives in watertight compartments with penalties inflicted solely on parents, as distinct from their children. This idea is straight from cloud-cuckoo-land. It is quite clear that when people live on minimum levels of support, such as benefits like income support, the money is all pooled, eventually going to the most pressing matter at any one time. Therefore it is evident that any such penalty will actually impact on children, as well as on the "innocent partner" in any couple, once this measure is introduced for families with children.

Rather than continuing to hector us, if he is to persist in pushing this clause the Minister must explain how it will impact solely on the guilty partner and not on the entire family.

Mr Morrow:

Earlier, when I was addressing all the clauses, I undertook to respond honestly to the points raised by individual Members as we examined each clause.

Hardship payments will be made available subject to individual circumstances. This mirrors what currently happens when employment sanctions have been imposed. Some of the Members who spoke today see something wrong with that and feel that it should not be necessary. It is my opinion that we must account for all eventualities; that is why this system is in place.

Ms McWilliams may have felt earlier that some of us disparaged the analogy of the old lady with a handbag. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is also vulnerable, and that is the type of person whom we seek to protect. However, the analogy of the old lady with a handbag may have been drawn in emotive rather than in real terms.

Having been a councillor and public servant for some 27 years, I am quite aware of some of the nasty things that happen in society. Therefore, when I am in a position to do something about them, it behoves me to do it with all my might and go the extra mile. This Bill will go a long way towards addressing many of the things which have caused concern to me throughout those years and to many Members present also.

3.00 pm

Ms McWilliams raised a point about clause 54 - it is needed to deal with the different rules relating to joint claims for jobseeker's allowance. I hope that clarifies the position. Complaints were made about the fact that there has been repetition on this matter. I accept that that is the case, but any repetition that I made was necessary.

Let no Member, including those opposed to this legislation, be under any illusion about why we need it. Mr Wells interjected when Ms McWilliams was speaking and made this point very succinctly: those who are before the courts or are having their payments sanctioned are people who will not accept their responsibilities to children. If this constitutes repetition, I am happy to stand in the dock, but I am going to keep repeating the fact that we are trying to look after the children and to get money to them. Those opposed to these clauses should focus on this point as they go through the Lobbies. When they come out at the other side they should ask themselves "Did I do what was right and in the best interests of the children who are being deprived of what is rightly theirs?"

In relation to a point made by Monica McWilliams, extension to other benefits would be by statutory rule, a matter which would come before the departmental Committee and then the House. I hope that she accepts that point. I am not accusing her of misunderstanding the Bill. I am sure she understands every letter and every word of it, and my tone is not mocking, it is genuine. But if she is emphatic that the clause should be taken out, let it be understood that some of us are emphatic that it should be kept in, and we will make every effort to ensure that it is.

I have dealt with the matter of sanctions: the responsibility lies entirely with those whose benefits have been taken from them. It is in their hands to do something about it - the responsibility must not be shifted to anyone else.

A similar point raised earlier by Mr Ford was adequately dealt with. Should anything remain unclear, the print will be examined when it is published, and an undertaking is given that every person's -

Mr Ford:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Morrow:

I am finished now. Every person's concerns will be fully addressed.

Mr Ford:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It was a ruling from the Chair that Members would be expected to give way. The Minister, who has just attempted to represent the way in which I spoke in this section of the debate, has misrepresented my position and has refused to accept an intervention. Is that in order, given the ruling that the Speaker made yesterday?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Ford, you are quite correct. In those circumstances, the Member should have given way. I had to assume that the Minister was halfway through his concluding sentence. It was exceptionally difficult for me to interrupt him mid-sentence, and when he finished the sentence he sat down.

Mr Ford:

On a further point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I assume that it is in order for the Minister to denigrate the rest of us, so long as it is in the last sentence of his speech?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

That is not the case, and that is not a point of order.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55 (Information provision)

Question proposed That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr Ford:

Since clauses 55, 56 and 57 are consequential on clauses 53 and 54, I do not propose to oppose them at this point, though I cannot speak for Ms McWilliams or Mr Ervine.

Ms McWilliams:

We must be very clear about the information to be provided by the offender under clause 55, especially as it is simply for benefit purposes.

Mr Morrow:

It might be prudent to deal with Mr Ford's comments. I find it strange to be accused of not giving way, and the allegation that I tried to stymie the debate is horrendous, given the number of times I did give way. Mr Ford might want to reflect on what he did or did not say.

Ms McWilliams's point is valid and I shall take it seriously. I will take a closer look at that point and come back to her definitively.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 56 to 67 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 68 (Commencement and transitional provisions)

Amendment (No 1) proposed: In page 66, after line 26 insert

" ( ) An order bringing in sections 16 or 53 to 57 will be subject to approval in draft." - [Mr Ford]

Mr Ford:

The position is quite clear - the Minister is certain of the rightness of his case. That being the case, it is reasonable to expect him to present in draft form the Order introducing the regulations relating to the clauses discussed earlier.

I would be interested to hear the views of the Ulster Unionist Party on these clauses. When the equivalent matter was discussed in the House of Commons, the Bill was opposed on Second Reading by Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist and Plaid Cymru Members. Mr Beggs, the late Mr Forsythe, Rev Martin Smyth and Mr William Thompson also opposed it. In the circumstances, therefore, their Colleagues in this House will, I am sure, support such a reasonable and modest amendment.

Mr Morrow:

The purpose of clause 68 is to allow the Department to make an Order or a series of Orders, bringing into operation the provisions of the Bill that do not come into operation on Royal Assent. This is found in every Act or Order in Council that does not come fully into operation on Royal Assent. It is most unusual for such an Order to be subject to any kind of control, either by the Assembly or by Parliament at Westminster.

The reason is that commencement Orders merely commence provisions already agreed by the Assembly. The appropriate time to debate the policy and any other issues is now.

Given the underpinning policy of parity, both in content and timing, there is no provision for any subordinate legislation dealing with social security, pensions or child support to be subject to approval by the Assembly before it comes into operation. This enables the designation of a single operative date for both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in line with my obligations under section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This amendment seeks to allow those Members whose amendments were defeated earlier today a second bite at the cherry. This cannot be right. Once the House has agreed the policy and the provisions of the Bill, the will of the House should be accepted, and we should move on.

Furthermore, acceptance of the amendment would once again call the issue of parity into question. I have already spoken at length on the subject, and I will do no more than assure the House that my intention, when advocating parity, is not to diminish the powers of the Assembly, but simply to get the best possible deal for the people of Northern Ireland. I strongly urge the Assembly to reject this amendment.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 9 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Consideration Stage having been completed, the Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Fisheries (Amendment) Bill: Committee Stage (Period Extension)


The Deputy Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mrs Nelis):

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move

That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Thursday 14 December 2000 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill (NIA 9/99).

The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is requesting an extension to the Committee Stage until 14 December, because we have not yet had an opportunity to take oral evidence on the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill. In addition, the Committee has almost completed taking evidence on its inland fisheries inquiry, which will help inform the Committee during its scrutiny of the Bill. As we all know, Committees will be very busy, for the next month or so, scrutinising the Programme for Government and the Budget proposals. Therefore the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee requests this extension.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Question put and agreed to.


That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to Thursday 14 December 2000 in relation to the Committee Stage of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill (NIA 9/99).



The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on Flags (Mr Agnew):

I beg to move

That the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Flags set up to consider the draft Regulations laid by the Secretary of State under the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 be submitted to the Secretary of State as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

3.15 pm

I had mixed feelings when I was nominated as Chairperson of this Committee, because, as a Unionist, I believe we have the right to fly the Union flag over Government buildings, and I had sympathy with those who were opposed to the Committee's being set up. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State sought the Assembly's opinion on the issue, so the Ad Hoc Committee was established and we were morally bound to review the matter and to produce a report.

At the outset, I felt that I was either mad or masochistic to have taken on the role of Chairperson. The cynics predicted that it would be impossible to produce a report, but we succeeded in our aims. As Committee Chairperson, it is my role to present this report to the Assembly and to move the motion.

The Committee was established on 11 September this year to report back to the Assembly by 16 October on the Secretary of State's draft Regulations for flags on Government buildings. We have defied the cynics and met the deadline - we were a day out, but that was not the Committee's fault. This achievement should not be underestimated, given the diversity of opinion on this issue and the timescale in which we had to work.

The Committee comprised representatives from every party in the Assembly, except the United Kingdom Unionist Party and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party. Members will note from the report that neither party made a submission to the Committee, a contribution which would have been beneficial. Our first meeting took place on 19 September, and we met in public session on a further five occasions.

We have an interesting transcript of one meeting during which it was suggested that a further meeting should take place "so long as it is held in the open." The transcript read "so long as it is held in the Europa", but we held it in the open in the Senate Chamber.

At our meeting on 25 September it was decided that the Committee report would be based on a series of propositions, reflecting the different views of Members, with an indication of the level of support for each standpoint. Each party represented on the Committee made written submissions in which it set out its different views, and these submissions have formed the basis of the report which is before the Assembly today.

Members will note that, for their convenience and by way of a summary, the report includes details of the various submissions on the party views, in subsections on the "Status of the Union Flag", "Flags and the Belfast Agreement" and "Positions on the proposed Regulations under the Flags (NI) Order 2000". In order to gain insight into the relevant issues surrounding the matter of the flying of the flags - indeed, we wanted to get as wide a range as possible - the Committee sought to hear evidence from those best placed to clarify the matters contained in the draft Regulations. We issued invitations to the Secretary of State, Mr Peter Mandelson; the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Mr Gerry Loughran; and the Chairperson of the Equality Commission, Mrs Joan Harbison. To our disappointment - although perhaps we should not have been surprised - the Secretary of State and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service were unable to attend.

Considering the importance of the subject to the Assembly, to the parties represented therein and to the electorate, and acknowledging that the Secretary of State was responsible for drafting the regulations and for allocating the timescale, it seems remiss that the Committee only heard evidence from the Equality Commission. It would have preferred to benefit from full and frank discussion with, and additional information and clarification from, all those who could have shed light on the various matters which arose.

The Committee heard the evidence of the Equality Commission on Thursday 5 October. We have included it in the report, along with three submissions from external organisations and individuals which were received in response to a press release by the Committee.

There are a few issues that I would like to draw to Members' attention. These issues were of concern to all Members of the Committee. The first point relates to the very tight deadline that was set for the Committee's work. By the time the membership of the Committee was agreed we had only three weeks to consider this difficult and divisive issue, to hear evidence and to produce a report. This timescale for this was totally inadequate, but thanks to the tremendous amount of time and effort given to the task by the staff of the Committee, I am able to present the report today. In future, we should ensure that a more realistic timescale is allocated, to enable a Committee of this kind to carry out the task it has been set.

My second point is to request that Ad Hoc Committees be given appropriate powers to call for persons and papers. Members of the Committee expressed disappointment that they were unable to hear evidence from the Secretary of State and the head of the Civil Service. For an Ad Hoc Committee to have this power, an amendment to Standing Orders would be required to meet the provision of section 44(6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This is an issue that should be considered by the Committee on Procedures.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Committee agreed that in the event of a Member's being unable to be present, a substitute should attend. Since the deadlines were extremely tight, and to avoid time wasting on briefing people again and again, each party was responsible for ensuring that deputies had a full working knowledge of what had gone before. At times this proved to be something of a problem, and it became increasingly clear that briefings had not taken place. In the interests of future Ad Hoc Committees, I would advise that this is not the best means of making progress.

I would like to thank the members of the Committee for their contributions and their patience and Mr David Ford, who is absent, for his help as Deputy Chairperson. On one occasion he gave me some good, fatherly advice - though I hasten to add that he is certainly not my father.

As Members can appreciate, it has not been easy to reach this point. I want to thank the staff of the Committee for their considerable help in ensuring that we could present this report to the Assembly today.

Mr Speaker:

Given the number of Members who wish to speak, I intend to restrict the length of each contribution to 10 minutes. This is not an incitement to use the full 10 minutes but a limit that must be imposed if we are to have the participation of as many Members as possible.

Mr Weir:

I am disappointed that we need to have this debate. We were told that this was a matter that would be sorted out, but it looks as if it is yet another matter which has slipped down the route of "constructive ambiguity".

I do welcome this report. At least we can get a fairly accurate picture of the views of the different parties. When scientists explore the great wastes of Siberia and other places they sometimes come across a body that has been frozen in time - a body which has been chiselled out from the neolithic ages. That recovered body bears a striking resemblance to a member of Sinn Féin. Its submissions show no recognition of anything that has happened in Northern Ireland over the last 80 years. Sinn Féin has failed to accept reality. Its submission is a green wish list. Its members look at the world as they would like it to be, not the way it actually is, and that outlook informs their attitude towards flags.

What is more disappointing in the evolution from neolithic man is that the other Nationalist parties do not appear to have evolved a great deal either. One notes with almost equal disappointment the submission of the SDLP, which, like Sinn Féin, is persistent in its rejection of the consent principle.

What is particularly disappointing is the submission of the Women's Coalition, which seems to be donning the garb of Nationalism. Its conclusion is that perpetuating the status quo and flying one flag is not a long-term option. The Women's Coalition does not accept the clear consent principle that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It gives a range of other options - two flags, no flags, a new flag or some combination - but the one option it does not regard as a long-term option is to keep flying the Union Jack.

I welcome, however, the range of Unionist propositions that have been put forward - and some of the responses from the Alliance Party - ranging from the somewhat short PUP proposals to the very extensive proposals from the Ulster Unionist Party.

Many aspects of these draft Regulations should cause us grave concern, in particular 2(2). Stormont is specifically excluded from the list of Government buildings. The specific set of buildings does not include the headquarters of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and there is no reference to any future buildings.

3.30 pm

These buildings seem to be almost frozen in time. If, for example, another building becomes a headquarters building in the future, or if another Government building is built, that seems to be specifically excluded from these proposals. The Secretary of State has to take those matters into account if he is to make his proposed Regulations acceptable in any shape or form.

There is also concern over the list of notified days. The majority of people here simply want Northern Ireland to reflect the rest of the United Kingdom. There is also a desire and a need to reflect what has been common practice until now. The fact that days are being dropped from the list - for example, 12 July - is to be deeply regretted. There needs to be an examination of that.

There are many issues to be covered. People will deal with them in the debate and I do not want to pre-empt them. I am gravely concerned that in regulation 9 we have for the first time a prohibition on the Union Jack flying other than on the specified days. That is a very retrogressive step and deeply to be regretted. The proposals are flawed.

The propositions put to the Committee that seem to have widespread support, at least within the Unionist bloc, are to be commended. I was not a member of the Flags Committee, but I did observe a couple of its sessions. I have to express disappointment with the attitude of the SDLP, particularly in the latter session. They seemed to take the petulant attitude that because they did not get their way, they were not going to take part in the voting. That does not bode well for the future of acceptance in Northern Ireland.

We are left with deeply flawed Regulations. It says a great deal about the current state of the political process in Northern Ireland that if this is put forward as the final draft by the Secretary of State, it will be perceived by some in the media as a sort of victory for Unionism. For Unionism to be able to claim victory for getting a slightly restricted form of what it already had shows how little Unionism has got from the process of late.

We are not talking about any special privileges, nor about flaunting the flag in the disgraceful way that, at times, it has been flaunted in this Province. We are not talking about flags on every lamp-post. We are talking about an acknowledgement of the principle of consent, with the flag flying on proper Government buildings on proper designated days. That is not too much for this Assembly to commit itself to. I urge the SDLP, in particular, to cast aside their intransigent Nationalist baggage and support the principle of consent, recognise that they are part of the United Kingdom and start facing that reality by supporting this proposal. I hope the Secretary of State makes the appropriate changes to these Regulations to allow us to have a proper outworking of the principle of consent in Northern Ireland.

Mr Dallat:

Mr Weir has summed up the whole thing pretty well. Twice he called for victory for Unionists, and I am not sure I could repeat -

Mr Weir:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Dallat:

I am only on my feet. Give me a chance.

Mr Weir:

Before misquoting me, perhaps the Member could at least listen to what I say. I said that the media might portray this as a victory for Unionism but that I would not regard it as such. If the Member is going to quote me in the future, perhaps he will listen a little more carefully.

Mr Dallat:

I thank Mr Weir for that. In this important debate it is essential that we get things absolutely right. I am sure that when Members have listened to this debate they will understand better why the Ad Hoc Committee resorted to a popular TV programme for inspiration and began talking about "fifty-fifty", "phone a friend" and "ask the audience".

At least the Committee members were good-natured about the problem. They realised that there is a problem, and the Chairperson was very fair in his work.

Returning to the television programme, some people have made themselves millionaires. Some have made themselves millionaires out of flags too and have not answered a question. The sad reality is that others have died in the process, and that makes everyone poor.

In its submission the Ulster Unionist Party quotes from the Good Friday Agreement:

"Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland".

That having been supported by 71% of the population and agreed by all of the parties to that agreement, I would love to know why we need this debate about flags. Why are we back into the quagmire about flags and the division that they have caused in Northern Ireland for so long?

Surely we should be seizing the opportunity to lay the foundation stones of a new society that respects diversity and goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid division. Why are we putting ourselves in this quicksand which will do nothing to bind the building blocks of a new Northern Ireland where everyone is not only equal but feels comfortable with that equality? Flags have been used all too often to mark out territory, to make political statements and destroy relationships.

The Ulster Covenant, if I dare mention it, was signed on a table bedecked with a Union flag, and since then, I am afraid, politics in Northern Ireland have always been matched by the need for a flag. Even the election literature can not be sent through the post without a Union flag pattern on it. How is that supposed to encourage non-Unionists to respect that flag?

Mr McCartney rose.

I hope that Mr McCartney will have his chance to speak when I am finished.

Even those who exploit the flag show it disrespect. They nail it to telegraph poles and even carry it upside down in distress. How many times have you seen the flag flying upside down at a DUP rally?

Let us suppose that I was to give my allegiance to the Union flag. How could I be sure that I was in harmony with my Unionist friends? This year there have been more flags on display than at any time since the Coronation of King George VI, and few of them have been Union flags. On a rough count, and I am a total outsider, I would say that the Ulster flag is the most popular. That is good news for one manufacturer in Dublin who makes them for the tourist trade in Bangor and in Portrush.

The point that I am making is a simple one: there is no unity about flags - not even in the Unionist community. There is certainly no cross-community support for any flags. That being the case, it would be best if we selected only the materials that help to create a new respect and a new understanding between divided people. The issue of flags should, we believe, be left for another day, and perhaps at some time in the future we can agree on our flags. That is what is happening in the context of the European Union, so perhaps there is hope for the future - some time.

We are at a critical point in our journey of peace, and we need many signposts for the future. However, if we are to attach flags to those signposts, then we are likely to get lost. That is not in the interests of anyone - not now or in the foreseeable future. I firmly believe that we are on the right road, waved on by the vast majority of people who are clutching not flags but a burning desire never to repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us bedeck that road, not with the tattered remains of flags, but with the light of a new dawn that continues to point us in the direction of a new future where the divisions of the past are a bad memory.

Flags stained with the blood of our fellow citizens are part of that past left behind, and it is inappropriate that any flag should fly on any Government building at present. We shall be abstaining in this vote.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The hard fact of the matter is that we should not have to discuss this. No Parliament in the world ever has to pass an Act to declare legality for the flying of its national flag. This debate is forced on the Assembly because the members of the perfect Executive were so loving, kind and tender one to the other that they failed to come to a decision on this matter. Those that trumpet loudly that they want devolution were prepared to go back to the Secretary of State to ask him to take powers from this House and from those who boasted of devolution. The House of Commons proposed that the Secretary of State should take back part of the powers already devolved in the so-called Good Friday Agreement. We had the British House of Commons going through a procedure of trying to legalise the flying of the national flag in this part of the United Kingdom.

Mr Dallat implied that the parties to the agreement agreed that we are part of the United Kingdom, but he then dished up a diet of tattered flags and talked about why we are having this debate. The fact is that the SDLP is opposed to the flying of the Union flag. If it had not been opposed, then the Unionists in partnership with it in the Executive could have passed this; the issue would have been all over and the flag would have been flying. It was SDLP opposition, and not opposition from the Sinn Féiners, that brought this about. The SDLP then lectures us about building blocks, tattered flags and the DUP flying the flag upside down. I am the only man that taught Europe how to fly the flag - the European Union was flying it upside down. Of course, I would not expect Mr Dallat to be even interested in how the flag was flown - he would be delighted it was flying upside down because he would hope that it meant that the Union was in distress. As long as the ordinary people of this land are in a majority, the Union will not be in distress, and they will not bow the knee to the policy of Mr Dallat and his party.

I note that he was very lenient on the Sinn Féiners because they use the Irish tricolour on their literature. He did not say anything about them. Perhaps he was trying to tell the House that it is in order to fly the tricolour and put it in election literature, but it is not in order to have the Union flag.

Mr McCartney:

Perhaps Mr Dallat will also recall, in relation to election literature put out by the SDLP, that literature with the tricolour on it was sent to predominantly Nationalist areas, and literature without it to predominantly Unionist areas.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Nothing would surprise me about the antics of Mr Dallat and his party.

The flag of the country should be flown, and nothing should keep it from being flown. If we believe that the majority of people want to have the Union, then the national flag should be flown. Mr Mandelson took this power back to himself. He then decided that he did not want the full responsibility, and he referred the matter to this House, knowing that this House will not come to an accommodation on it. There can be no accommodation as far as flying of the national flag is concerned - the flag is not for sale. It is not a matter of negotiation. The national flag flies, full stop. That is the attitude of the Southern Government, the Netherlands Government, the German Government and all the Governments of the European Union. However, the European Union has devised another flag with stars, which Mr Dallat, who is a student of stars, knows is a papal flag. They say that the European Union has a majority of papal states, so it had to have a papal flag. In fact, the nuncio from the Pope is the head of the ambassadors, because the EU is looked upon in Europe as a union of Roman Catholic states. But we have a flag - the flag of the United Kingdom - and it is the flag that should be flown on our property.

3.45 pm

These Regulations are not about the flying of flags at all. They are about prohibiting the flying of the flag on the majority of the days of the year on "so-called" Government buildings - because they do not define those carefully. They make sure that they are not defined carefully so there will be many reasons for Sinn Féin Ministers not to put them up.

The Regulations say that on the majority of the days of the year, as far as Government buildings are concerned, the flag has not to fly. It will be illegal to fly the Union flag. It also says that on the Twelfth of July the flag has not to fly. But the revolution settlement, upon which this United Kingdom is built, politically, came about as a result of the Battle of the Boyne and the victory that was gained there. The revolution settlement - the Williamite revolution settlement - is the basis of our constitution. We need to remember that. Why should the flag not fly on the Twelfth of July?

Of course, they say it can now be flown on St Patrick's Day. I have no objection to that. I believe Saint Patrick was a Christian and I believe he taught the Christian message. It was an English pope, the only English pope we ever had - Adrian IV - who sold Ireland to Henry II in order to destroy the Celtic Church and implant Romanism on this island.

Mr Speaker:

Order. I was following the connection with the flying of the flag as far as the Williamite settlement. I have to confess that when the Member went back to St Patrick the connection with the flag began to become a little more tenuous.

Mr P Robinson:

It is in the report.

Mr Speaker:

I accept that it is in the report.

Mr P Robinson:

Are we not allowed to speak to the report?

Mr Speaker:

I am trying to draw the Member's attention to the fact that he only has little over two minutes to speak, and it would be best for him, I would have thought, to stay most relevant to the motion.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I know the time very well. I can read the clock. I do not need any help from you to tell me my time is nearly up, for you will bring the mallet down on me and that will be that. You were trying to tell me I was out of order but you became unstuck because it was mentioned in the report. I do not really want to fall out with you about St Patrick's Day, but I am going to fall out with anyone who says the national flag can not fly on the national territory - and that is what this is all about.

I read this report with amazement. I did not see where the SDLP even voted for their own proposals. I do not understand. Now they are abstaining. I wish they would abstain from other things that war against the soul. But let me just say this to you today: the national flag will fly in this country. It is the wish of the vast majority of its people to remain within this Union. Long live the Union, and let the Union flag fly.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Any value the Committee's report would have had was probably negated by the fact that there was a convoluted attempt to introduce some weighing mechanism that would have bypassed any vote this Assembly might have taken on any proposals coming from it. It was really only an exercise in people re-stating their position. It was nothing more than that.

We have to draw attention back to the Good Friday Agreement because the section dealing with rights, safeguards, and equality of opportunity contains a number of commitments from the British Government. These include promoting social inclusion, tackling the problems of a divided society, and particularly, sensitivity in the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, especially in the new institutions, to ensure that they are used in a manner that promotes mutual respect rather than division.

Judging by those undertakings, it is obvious that Peter Mandelson's draft Regulations are a deliberate contradiction of the commitments given during the Good Friday negotiations. However, playing fast and loose with British Government commitments is nothing new to the present Secretary of State.

The issue of flying flags on Government buildings was supposed to have been dealt with by the Executive. Only on the failure of the Executive to resolve the matter was the Secretary of State to intervene. I am not aware - but I could be corrected - of any statement from the Executive stating that it could not resolve the issue. The Secretary of State's intervention on this issue is an act of political expediency designed to shore up the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party at the expense of all other participants in the process.

Mr Mandelson's draft Regulations not only fly in the face of the agreement and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, but they also contradict the fair employment code of practice, as outlined by a tribunal finding in 1995. This stated that employees do not have to tolerate reminders or suggestions that particular religious beliefs, or political opinions, have a special place in their workplace.

The Regulations, as proposed, will discriminate between employees who work in regional departmental offices and those who are based at departmental headquarters. The latter will be subjected to having to work in a building that displays the flag of the British state, regardless of their political opinions or affiliations, while the former will not.

One would have assumed that in the drafting of such Regulations, which are highly sensitive in terms of employment practice, the Secretary of State would have consulted the Equality Commission - the body set up to provide expertise and advice in these matters. For reasons best known to himself he did not consult the Equality Commission. One might also have thought, given the political sensitivity of this issue, that the Secretary of State would have consulted with the Irish Government, if not the political parties here, before these Regulations were drafted. Again, I am aware of no such consultation.

Mr Mandelson compounded that high-handed disregard, which has been his hallmark throughout his tenure here, by refusing to come to explain his thinking, or lack of it, to the Committee. He specifically asked that the Committee be formed to examine the Regulations that he provided us with. If the Secretary of State wishes to make a constructive intervention in this issue then he should do so with proper regard to the Good Friday Agreement.

The agreement clearly places the Six Counties in a unique constitutional framework. The changes to the Southern constitution, matched by legislation here, extend executive authority across the entire island and radically alter the constitutional position of this part of the island. In this context the norm of flying flags on Government buildings in Britain is not appropriate to the North of Ireland. Therefore, whatever British cultural symbols are evoked in public life here, the equivalent Irish cultural and political symbols should be given equal prominence. If agreement or consensus cannot be found on this issue at present, then a reasonable alternative is to suspend flying the flag until agreement or consensus can be found.

I also dispute the notion that these Regulations could be tolerated for a year to facilitate further consultation. If the Secretary of State has shown such disregard for those who consider themselves Irish in the draft of these Regulations, then how much regard will he show in one year's time? Until agreement is reached on this issue no flags should fly. The Secretary of State's draft Regulations are an incompetent and politically motivated attempt to deal with a very complex issue. He should be urged to go back and read the Good Friday Agreement, because this new political dispensation is about managing change, and, where custom and practice have disenfranchised people, it is about inclusiveness. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Chairperson, Mr Fraser Agnew, for the kind remarks he made about me during his initial speech. I heard them from outside the Chamber, although I was not in my place - as he delicately read into Hansard. He assured the House that I am not his father, and I am happy to concur and assure the House that he is not my son either.

On a more serious point, it is unfortunate - and that is a mild euphemism - that the work of the Committee was obstructed by the inability of either the Secretary of State or the head of the Civil Service to appear before it. They have turned what was an extremely difficult task into a well-nigh impossible one. However, it is a great pleasure to stand here and see that two of the four members of the Ulster Unionist Party who serve on the Committee have at least managed to be present. This contrasts with the debate earlier this afternoon, when the members of the Social Development Committee could not even appear to take part in any discussion.

The draft Regulations that were presented to us are unfortunate, but they are a necessity because of our failure to agree. It would have been much preferable if we had managed to reach an agreement as Members of the Assembly, or as Members of the Executive, and we had not required the Secretary of State to make the rules for us.

However, the rules sent to us were generally balanced. The fact that they have been criticised by both extremes suggests that they are not entirely wrong. They should be viewed as the best means for a way forward, although they are by no means the last word.

There is a need to promote shared symbols in this society, rather than those which perpetuate division. I wish the draft Regulations contained some encouragement, albeit limited encouragement, for the flying of the European Union flag - 9 May is only one day in the year. At least the European Union flag has a measure of support across the House, although that may be a matter of money for some Members and a matter of principle for others. The Secretary of State should consider extending the flying of the European Union flag, because it is a symbol which unites.

Similarly, St Patrick's flag may not be the be-all and end-all, but it is recognised across the House. The use of St Patrick's flag on St Patrick's day and perhaps beyond deserves serious examination. It is another symbol which unites rather than divides.

Mr B Hutchinson:

Is the Member aware that members of Sinn Féin on Belfast City Council claimed that St Patrick's flag was sectarian because it was carried by O'Duffy's blueshirts?

Mr Ford:

I am sure the Member does not expect me to speak for O'Duffy's blueshirts. Perhaps there are people in another Assembly, one hundred miles down the road, to whom the Member should address that question if he ever gets there.

I am concerned about the proliferation of flags on lamp-posts and telegraph poles. Mr Dallat remarked earlier that more flags were flown this summer than had happened since the coronation of King George VI. One interesting thing, at least in my area, was how few flags were flown on private houses. Perhaps those who used to fly flags on private property were making a statement against the proliferation of flags representing various organisations as well as the Union flag and the flag of the former Government of Northern Ireland. These were flown inappropriately on public property all over the place and, unfortunately, were not removed by the public authorities. I am opposed to those parts of the Regulations, particularly regulations 7 and 8, which seem to permit the proliferation of flags - whatever flags they may be.

There is an issue about the use of the Union flag or the flags of other states on headquarters buildings or on buildings being visited. There is no justification for using that to support mass proliferation. The Equality Commission made the point - and Mr C Murphy may object to this - that people who work in a headquarters building may have to suffer things that others do not. I understood from the Equality Commission's evidence that there is a ceremonial issue, which may mitigate normal fair employment regulations, and that should be accepted.

It was novel that Mr Weir appeared to speak for the Ulster Unionist Party, because he no longer holds that party's Whip. He was sad that 12 July was no longer a flag-flying day. In the context of the principle of consent, if the Union flag is to fly as a simple recognition of Northern Ireland's constitutional status and not as one section of society's emblem, which is waved antagonistically in the face of others, it is utterly wrong for 12 July to be a designated flag-flying day. One of the things which the Secretary of State did correctly - [Interruption]

I am on a time limit.

The twelfth of July is not celebrated in any other UK region, and flying the flag on that day should not be supported.

I also have serious concerns about those who suggest that the tricolour should fly alongside the Union flag, because that will entrench divisions and make an inaccurate statement about Northern Ireland's constitutional status. That suggests that only two groups in this society have rights, and that the rest do not. Those Nationalists who advocate this are suggesting that the Union flag should fly in perpetuity. If the tricolour should fly now in recognition of the rights of some, the Union flag should fly for ever - no matter what the constitutional status is - in order to recognise other people's rights.

Mr Dallat talked at some length about the misuse of the Union flag. He was right, and I agree with him. However, that does not mean that the Union flag is not the flag of the state, as defined by the principle of consent. Dr Paisley commented about the misuse of tricolours and Union flags. Will he re-examine his last European election address and tell us if what purported to be a Union flag on it was drawn correctly?

We need to move towards a position of mutual respect. It is clear that at the moment we do not have that opportunity within the Regulations - [Interruption]

4.00 pm

Mr P Robinson:

The 2% party.

Mr Ford:

It was 7% the last time.

The emphasis must be on building shared symbols and not on seeking to perpetuate those that divide. In this Assembly we have the example of flax flowers. This may be a kind of lowest common denominator, but at least it is a move forward. We must move in this direction, because until we can start to build issues and symbols which unite rather than divide, we will continue to perpetuate our problems.

Mr C Wilson:

The Northern Ireland Unionist Party and I will not be endorsing the contents of this report today. My party wisely refused to participate in this farcical Committee and, given what we have heard today, I am sure that the public will agree that it was farcical.

We refused to participate on the grounds that the flying of the Union flag throughout Northern Ireland, as in the other regions of the United Kingdom, is not negotiable. There are those on the Unionist side of the House who agreed, wittingly or unwittingly, to jump through the hoop that Mr Mandelson held out to them, insisting that they take part in this charade. This has provided Sinn Féin/IRA with a platform upon which to rail against anything that is British, including the Union flag.

To endorse this report today is to ask people on this side of the House to send a report to the Secretary of State that includes Sinn Féin's views on tearing down the flag and parity of esteem for the tricolour. To do that would give the impression that the views expressed by Sinn Féin on the flags issue are as valid as Unionist views.

When I heard the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee making his presentation today, I thought he had realised belatedly that my party had, in fact, made the right call on this issue. At the outset, he told us that he did not like the role that he had been given by the Committee; he had had difficulty with it; he did not like the remit of the Committee; and he did not like the timetable set by the Secretary of State.

The Chairman and some others have told us here today that they did not like this task and that they agree with us that the Union flag should not have been a matter for debate. Why, then, did they participate in the nonsensical charade of the Ad Hoc Committee on Flags? They tell us that it was because the Secretary of State told them that they had to. Well, I am glad to say that I come from a tradition in Unionism that is used to saying "No". It is used to saying "No" to the British Government, and it is used to saying "No" to Mr Mandelson when he wants us to participate in something that is detrimental to the interests of the Union and Northern Ireland.

I am disappointed that today we are faced with another media spectacle of a nonsense about flags in the Assembly. My party will not be assisting Sinn Féin to transmit its message to the Secretary of State, regardless of how those views are dressed up.

My party wishes to warn the Secretary of State that if, there is any departure from the established practice of flying of the Union flag in Northern Ireland, [when this Order is made,] a legal challenge may be brought on the matter.

I agree with Dr Paisley that if all else fails, the people of Northern Ireland will be the final arbiters of the matter. The Union flag will fly throughout Northern Ireland, and it will fly despite the best efforts of people to the contrary, whether through a bombing campaign or through the Belfast Agreement and this "peace process".

The members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and particularly Mr Trimble and his negotiating team, should be hanging their heads in shame today.

The PUP and other Unionists who took part in this said that it was a disgrace that the flag issue had to be revisited. Mr Ervine and Mr Trimble and his colleagues told the people of Northern Ireland that this issue had been resolved in the Belfast Agreement. They told of the great deal that they had achieved for Ulster and for the people of Northern Ireland - the constitution was underpinned and copper fastened and the Union flag would fly proudly across Northern Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland now see a small glimpse of betrayal, not just with regard to the RUC, which was supposed to have been saved, but also the flag issue. To whom are we entrusting the future of the Union and the flag? We are entrusting it to the man who has put our Colleagues through the hoop by sending a shoddy document to the Assembly insisting that they participate. I am glad to say that the Northern Ireland Unionist Party steadfastly refused to jump through Mr Mandelson's hoop. He can find poodles elsewhere. The Northern Ireland Unionist Party says that the Union flag will fly in Northern Ireland because the people say that it will fly.

Mr Watson:

It is with regret and disappointment that I speak to this motion; regret and disappointment that the flying of the national flag should become the subject of debate for a Committee and the subject of a report.

My two Colleagues and myself sought election to the Assembly on the basis of our opposition to what we believed was an iniquitous agreement. We feared for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom as a result of it. This question of the flag compounds all our anxieties. As time goes past our warnings to the Unionist community have proved to be correct and our fears well founded. The Belfast Agreement has delivered almost certainly what its supporters have endorsed as constructive ambiguity. This extends to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

We are told that in the agreement is enshrined the principle of consent, yet while Northern Ireland is purported to be an integral part of the United Kingdom nothing must be displayed that might confirm this notion, and there are those who are trying to prevent us from doing so.

As happened with the review of the criminal justice system and the reform of the RUC, anything perceived to be British is to be removed from view and, it seems, obliterated from memory. It appears that only neutrality is permissible and acceptable. The majority of citizens in Northern Ireland wish to maintain the link with the United Kingdom. The most visible and outward expression of that position is the flying of the Union flag and to deny this is not only tantamount to denying the constitutional position of this Province but also a failure to recognise the principle of consent and the expressed wish of the majority.

The United Unionist Assembly Party contends that the flag issue is greater than matters of equality, neutrality, cultural heritage and identity. It is a constitutional question. As stated in our submission, to give credence to any of these false assertions is to discriminate against the wishes of the majority in favour of appeasing the demands of a vociferous minority.

It has been suggested in more than one submission that the Irish tricolour should fly alongside the Union flag. The tricolour is the national flag of a foreign country. It can not and should not be flown from our Government buildings, and it can not and ought not to be compared to the flying of the Scottish and Welsh national flags at their national Parliament and Assembly.

I am greatly concerned that we are faced with the prospect of being prohibited from flying the Union flag on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday - days of religious significance to all our citizens. Furthermore, the United Unionist Assembly Party believes that the enormous sacrifice by men and women from across the religious divide who paid the ultimate price should be remembered by the flying of the Union flag - the flag under which they fought - on 1 July to commemorate the Great War.

In the course of the past year we have witnessed the debacle of the flag's not being flown in Departments occupied by Nationalist Ministers. It is ironic and saddening that those who cry for equality the loudest are reluctant to set an example and afford the same courtesy to those of a different tradition. There is little tolerance to be found when it comes to the flying of the Union flag.

Some parties have suggested that regulations only be put in place for one year to enable further discussion and a general consensus to be found.

Consensus has already been found on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It will make no difference for the Unionist community in one year's time because they will be no closer to accepting the flying of the Irish tricolour alongside the Union flag at Stormont. I strongly caution that whatever decisions the Secretary of State may make on the draft regulations, and whatever changes he implements, there should be no further appeasement regarding the flying of the flag on Parliament Buildings and Government buildings.

There can be no question of removing the flag. This will only serve to further alienate the Unionist community and will see the matter becoming the running sore that the Secretary of State so dreads. Instead, sanctions of some kind must be introduced against those Ministers who neglect their duty and breach their code of conduct by refusing to fly the flag on their Department buildings. We should not see again such scant disregard from those in positions of authority.

The issue of the flag has been of great concern to the Unionist people, who feel that they have given much and received little in return in the one-way street of concessions that has become the peace process. They wonder why the flying of the flag is an issue at all. Yet they are not surprised that it is an issue, because everything has sadly become a matter for debate and a battle to be fought and won. I congratulate the Chairperson of the Committee on managing to bring together a report. It clearly sets out the positions of the various parties in the Assembly and we will be endorsing it.


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