Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 17 January 2000 (continued)

3.45 pm

Housing Executive Budget

3. Mr S Wilson asked the Minister for Social Development to confirm how much the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been required to save from its budget for 2000-01 in order to facilitate the budget shortfall caused by the delay in the sale of the port of Belfast and whether he has been informed about how the Northern Ireland Housing Executive intends to fund the required savings. (AQO 23/99)

Mr Dodds:

The Member is referring to the present in-year reduction to the Housing Executive's expenditure to facilitate the non-sale of the port of Belfast. This year, 1999-2000, the Housing Executive has had to defer schemes to the value of £3 million. These are deferrals, and the £3 million will be reinstated once the sale of the port of Belfast proceeds.

Mr S Wilson:

Is the Minister aware that in this year the Housing Executive has already delayed the implementation of the redevelopment area in Connswater and that, as a result, many people who should have been given priority to the houses built to facilitate them will not be able to move into those houses? They will be allocated to people from outside the area. The blight on the area is going to be exacerbated by the delay in the Housing Executive fulfilling its promises, on the basis of the budget shortfall. Will the Minister take the matter up with the chief executive to ensure that those promises are fulfilled?

Mr Dodds:

The assessment of the need to carry out a redevelopment scheme and the time at which any such scheme is undertaken is a matter for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and not for me, directly. I do know that the chief executive has advised that plans for the redevelopment of the Mersey Street/Connswater area are well advanced, and that, subject to financial provision, this project should begin in the next financial year. He has confirmed that the Housing Executive remains totally committed to that area and to ensuring decent and good housing as soon as possible. I will be meeting the chief executive later this week, and I will draw these matters to his attention. I should point out that as this relates to the sale of the port of Belfast, the matter falls within the Department for Regional Development.

I should add that on 12 May 1998 when the Chancellor announced the £315 million package of spending measures and tax reliefs to bolster Northern Ireland's economic future, some of us, who were wearing a different hat at that time, did point out that this money did not come without strings attached. Whilst he announced where the money might go, he left in the small print the question of where it was going to be found. Unfortunately we are now paying for that in terms of some of the deferrals that we are seeing.

Mr Poots:

Given the problems indicated in the finances of the Housing Executive, and the fact that over the past few years we have seen rent increases above the inflation rate, can the Minister assure the House that rent increases will be kept as close to inflation as possible?

Mr Dodds:

The issue of rent increases will be considered in due course. The income for next year for the Housing Executive is presently under consideration. I agree that increases need to be kept as close as possible to the rate of inflation. Departments have come to this issue regarding the regional rate for domestic and non-domestic use fairly late in the cycle, and therefore our room for manoeuvre this year is somewhat limited. I will be laying down a very strong marker that in future years, under devolution, I would hope that any rent increases should be pegged as tightly as possible to inflation.

Social Security Agency

4. Mr McMenamin asked the Minister for Social Development if he will review the procedures within the Social Security Agency relating to the loss of forms and post in the internal postal system.

(AQO 10/99)

Mr Dodds:

The Social Security Agency deals with millions of pieces of post every year, as the Member will be aware, and, while the vast majority are dealt with satisfactorily, I acknowledge that some can go astray. The agency is committed to a continuous review of the level of service it provides and has work in hand to improve customer service in this area.

Mr McMenamin:

I have had complaints from several of my constituents over the past few months about lost mail. Apart from the delay and frustration that can result, this can also lead to lengthy telephone calls which these people cannot afford. Will the Minister assure me that he will give this problem his utmost attention?

Mr Dodds:

Yes, I can give that undertaking. This issue has been before me already. The recent report from the Citizens Advice Bureau entitled 'Accessing Social Security' pointed out this problem as well as a number of others. However, independent research has consistently shown that at least 90% of customers are satisfied with the social security service that they receive, but I am not content with that. I want that figure to rise to the highest level possible, and I undertake to look at the matter very closely. Officials are already in liaison with a number of outside bodies who are also concerned.

If the Member wishes to give me details of the individual cases to which he is referring, I will ensure that they are fully investigated and that his constituents are replied to.

Housing Executive Estates:
Sectarian Graffiti

5. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Social Development what plans he has to tackle the problem of sectarian graffiti, kerbstone painting and flags and emblems in Housing Executive estates. (AQO 7/99)

Mr Dodds:

To ensure the safety of the staff and contractors involved in the removal of offending and offensive material, such removal is undertaken only with the support of the local community. To gain more support for this, the Housing Executive recently launched a consultation paper aimed at achieving a community-relations strategy. The objectives of the initiative are to encourage a co-ordinated approach, to increase support and to open the way for further intervention where possible.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for that response and the Executive for its work so far, but may I draw his attention to Clause 28 of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998, which deals with discrimination in the provisions of goods, facilities and services, and that includes public goods. Does the Minister agree that this imposes a duty on the Housing Executive to clear up sectarian graffiti in its estates?

Mr Dodds:

No, I cannot accept that that piece of legislation imposes that particular duty on the Housing Executive. The Question deals with graffiti, kerbstone painting and flags and emblems in estates. Kerbstone painting, flags, emblems and street lighting posts fall outside the remit of both the Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development.

Mr Ford:

Some of them.

Mr Dodds:

Well, kerbstone painting certainly does.

However, the Housing Executive is concerned with this issue. It has published a consultative document, and it intends to bring a report to the Housing Executive Board later this month.

Action should be taken regarding offensive and threatening material, but we must adopt a common-sense approach. The problem is widely acknowledged, but I for one do not wish to see the lives or limbs of contractors or staff endangered or a problem made worse by intervention which only exacerbates the situation. I am sure that that would be the Member's view as well.

Last week I listened to reports on the early morning news of two pilot schemes that are underway in the Highfield Estate and in Lenadoon. I also heard about the excellent work that is being carried out in the Ballyduff Estate in Newtownabbey. These point the way forward for community involvement.

Mr B Hutchinson:

What is the Housing Executive's definition of sectarian graffiti? Some of the things to which Mr Ford and his Colleagues have referred are among the biggest tourist attractions in west and north Belfast.

Mr Dodds:

I do not know whether the Housing Executive has a definition, but I doubt it very much. I am almost certain that it is not the case. The Member has highlighted what many people see as a representation of their culture and identity.

There are other instances, however, where the graffiti are clearly threatening and offensive. That is why we have to judge these situations on an individual basis and consult with the community. The examples I pointed out earlier show that where the graffiti are offensive and threatening, the community will support removal, even though some may not be happy about it. There is much greater resistance to removing something that is an expression of culture, and that is why it is very difficult to lay down ground rules in black and white. The Executive has produced a consultation document, and we want to hear the responses to that before we take the matter further.

Mrs E Bell:

I agree with the Minister that it is vital to have community involvement - I have some knowledge of this in the north Down area. I want to ask the Minister if consideration has been given to a co-ordinated approach. Part of the problem in my area is that there is a pass-the-buck mentality - sectarian graffiti of whatever ilk, paintings and flags, et cetera, are not dealt with.

Mr Dodds:

I can give the Member that assurance. The strategy report that the Housing Executive has launched recognises that neither the Executive nor any agency alone can improve this situation. The proposals are aimed at supporting and working with others involved, and this includes more research into and understanding of the issue. Intervention will take place, and it may help to achieve something.

Social Security Benefits: Post Office Service

6. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Social Development what action he will take to ensure that those on benefit can continue to have their benefit paid through their local post office. (AQO 21/99)

Mr Dodds:

The Social Security Agency has given a commitment to continue to use the post office to much the same extent as it does now until March 2003. With effect from 2003, payments will be made by automated credit transfer (ACT) under national Government proposals. I hope that arrangements will be in place to allow people to continue to get their money through post offices.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for his response, which gives a guarantee until 2003. Unfortunately, given the problems which seem to occur in all major Government computerisation schemes and the fact that the payment, if not the rate of benefit is something which is devolved, I have my doubts about whether the arrangements for ACT will actually be ready by then. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will continue to maintain the essential service provided by Post Office Counters Ltd in both urban and rural areas, whether or not the computerisation is completed by the 2003 deadline?

Mr Dodds:

I understand, as I know that other Members do, that the post office network is important to the community, particularly the elderly. I have asked that the agency work closely with the post office to try to ensure that customers will be able to continue to obtain benefits at post offices.

With regard to social security, Members will be aware that in Northern Ireland we have a fairly restricted degree of manoeuvre on these issues because of the parity principle and, as I have said, because of the fact that a national policy is agreed. That is not to say that we should not be looking at UK-wide level, to see whether we should go ahead with this national policy.

This is what the new Labour Government intend to do, and benefit payments in Northern Ireland depend on the main benefit-feeder systems in Great Britain. The Social Security Agency in Northern Ireland has very little room to manoeuvre on encashment methods. Therefore to do otherwise would incur substantial business cost, and that money would have to be taken out of other programmes. There is also the issue of fraud with order books and giros.

I should like to explore this policy with the Assembly Committee and Members to see whether, on a national basis, it can succeed. Present policy and constraints show that we have to follow the national policy.

4.00 pm

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I thank the Minister for his expression of concern. Does he appreciate the depth of feeling in the community over the possible stopping of benefits from being paid through local post offices? Such a move would make a great difference to the elderly population for whom a visit to the post office is a day out and an opportunity to meet others. Does he agree that without the revenue and the business that comes through benefits, many sub post offices would not be viable and, therefore, endangered? This is another way of withdrawing services from small urban or rural communities. It would be a retrograde step, and I ask the Minister to make representation at national level to see if the policy can be changed.

Mr Dodds:

I agree with the Member, and I undertake to bring these points home to the Minister responsible at UK level. I also agree with the Member about the importance of post offices, particularly in rural areas and for the elderly. It is important for post offices to remain the means by which people can access benefits, whether by automated credit transfer or under the present system.

I agree that our post offices should still be used in the way that the Member has described.

Mr Speaker:

The time for questions is up.


National Flag


Mr Paisley Jnr:

I beg to move the following motion:

This House condemns the refusal of the Health Minister to grant permission for the flying of the national flag on appropriate Government property on the designated period over the Christmas holidays, in flagrant breach of settled policy.

This motion has been prompted by the actions of the Minister of Health, whose arrogance leads her to think that she can attack the symbols of British identity and do so with impunity. A message must go from the House that this will not be tolerated, it will not be accepted. With apologies to Winston Churchill, may I say that never before in the history of Western democracy have so many Ministers been paid so much money to administer so little.

Given the flu epidemic over the Christmas period, the Minister should have had greater things to perplex her mind than the flying of the British national flag from Government offices.

The agreement signed in April 1998 says that there must be tolerance and sensitivity with the use of symbols in our country. The Minister has demonstrated no such tolerance or sensitivity with regard to the Unionist population, and she is in breach of the agreement. The agreement says that symbols and emblems must be

"used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."

The Minister's approach to the flying of the national flag on her Government offices failed to demonstrate respect for the Unionist community, and her attitude has caused further division. I put the charge to the House that the Minister has breached the Belfast Agreement that she signed and claims to support and to which her party claims to be wholly signed up.

I note how other parties have responded to this motion and, particularly, the way in which the SDLP has put down an amendment to it. I believe that the SDLP - instead of doing what it did earlier today, when it was supposedly defending the agreement - is actually ignoring the agreement on this issue, and one can see that this is so from the amendment. The amendment is not concerned with the agreement. In fact, the amendment put forward by the SDLP is nothing more than flannel. Like Sinn Féin, the SDLP is attacking the national flag. Once again, the SDLP is running away from Sinn Féin, just as it is doing on the ground in the constituencies.

The flying of the Union flag over government buildings is not a party-political or sectarian matter, as is implied in the SDLP amendment. The flag is flown in its proper context, and I cannot think of a more appropriate context in which it could fly. It is non-controversial and non-confrontational to have it flying on government buildings. The SDLP ought to be ashamed of itself for putting down this amendment.

The SDLP has said very little about the triumphalistic display of tricolours by people in this society and the St Patrick's Day Committee in particular. In fact, the SDLP has said very little publicly about that. One wonders about the two laws in which the SDLP believes. One law attacks, denigrates and undermines the symbols of Britishness, attacks and undermines our right to display those symbols, and the other law permits Nationalist symbols to be displayed at all times.

I believe that the Ulster Unionist Party's Whip, Mr J Wilson, stated in Saturday's 'News Letter' that he had no problem with the motion, so I look forward to his and his party's joining us in the Lobbies.

Also in that edition, an unidentified Ulster Unionist Party source also made some very interesting comments, apparently following a marathon session of the Northern Ireland Executive. According to the 'News Letter' there had been a very heated debate in the Executive. One party insider said that Unionist Ministers were incensed and gave no quarter as they rounded on Sinn Féin over its approach to the flag controversy. Indeed, they were apparently responding to the way in which Ms de Brún had taken it upon herself to ensure that the flag of this country did not fly on Government buildings.

Of course, we have seen the Ulster Unionist Party giving no quarter in the past. We only have its word that it gave no quarter in the Executive. When it gave no quarter at the talks, we ended up with the Belfast Agreement, which not only allowed for the release of IRA prisoners but substantially attacked on the integrity of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and provided for the establishment of all-Ireland bodies with executive powers. When the Ulster Unionist Party gave no quarter during the Mitchell review, we ended up with the IRA's entering the Government of Northern Ireland. I can only imagine - and, indeed, I think we should brace ourselves for this - that, since the Ulster Unionist Party gave no quarter last week at the Executive meeting, we will end up with the white flag of surrender flying over Glengall Street.

One of the first duties of the Ulster Unionist Party's junior Minister, Mr Dermot Nesbitt, was to have a meeting with his counterpart, Mr Haughey. I understand from his diary, which I have seen, that he had a meeting with Mr Haughey about the flying of flags on Parliament Buildings. This meeting lasted for about one and a half hours, and as a result any fears or speculation about the flag were dampened down during the Christmas recess. The Ulster Unionist Party said nothing about the Minister's refusal to let the flag fly.

This is an attack not only on the symbols of British identity and of this nation but also on people. This subtle, but important, difference should be understood. We have seen in recent hours how extremists in IRA/Sinn Féin have attacked people because of symbols. An example of this is the Duchess of Abercorn. She is identified by Sinn Féin as someone worthy of attack because she is a duchess. They allege that because she is a duchess she must be royalty, and not only royalty but a member of the British royal house and an heir to the throne. The reality is far from the myth that Sinn Féin has created. It is almost like suggesting, Mr Speaker - if you will forgive me - that the wife of the Speaker of this House should be classed as royalty because she is a "Lady".

Sinn Féin has got this completely wrong and has not only attacked people on this issue but attacked and exploited children also.

I have a clipping from the 'Irish News' in which Mr Kelly of Sinn Féin, in dealing with the matter of flags, takes great exception to the police's taking down Nationalist flags. It appears to me that Sinn Féin, like the SDLP, has two rules. First, the RUC, and everybody else, has to bow down and accept Nationalist symbols of identity, and not only accept them but appreciate them - not attack or demean them. However, British symbols of identity have to be removed and demeaned, and Nationalist ones elevated above them.

I understand that part of the Sinn Féin oath is to do with driving Unionists into the sea. Attacking our identity is part and parcel of that strategy. An attempt to outlaw and demean the symbols of our British identity is very much part and parcel of that Republican agenda.

I have a message for Sinn Féin, as every genuine Unionist has. It is that Sinn Féin will fail. It will not achieve its agenda. It failed in 1798, in 1916, and in 1921, and it will fail again in 2016. I understand that Mr Adams believes that, when up close to Mr Trimble, he can persuade Unionists to come into a united Ireland. He is dealing with, and indeed he is up close to, the wrong sort of Unionists. Genuine Unionists are not interested in Mr Adams's united Ireland.

On 20 May 1998 in Belfast, Tony Blair claimed that there would be no change to the status of Northern Ireland. If that is so, I would like to know why Sinn Féin is attempting to remove the national flag? If the agreement is all that those in the Unionist pro-agreement camp believe it to be, and that it protects our British identity, why is Sinn Féin being allowed to get away with not flying the national flag?

I do not believe that the agreement protects our national identity. In fact, I do not believe that Tony Blair's pledge of 20 May 1998 is credible. I also want to know why the Ulster Unionist Party does not appear to have taken punitive action against Sinn Féin for this breach of the agreement. Saturday's 'News Letter' said that people were very angry, that voices were raised and that no quarter was given. But no punitive action has been taken against a Minister who took it upon herself to lower the symbol, the national flag, of this country. This is not the only Minister in breach of the Belfast Agreement. So are the other Ministers who attend Executive meetings.

Mr Speaker:

I indicated earlier today that when I had a list of Members before a debate I would attempt to give a timescale for speeches. That was not possible before the first motion, and some Members were understandably unhappy that they did not get a chance to speak.

4.15 pm

I had hoped, given the number of Members who have indicated a wish to speak in this debate, to be able to allocate five minutes to each. I must caution the mover of the motion that he will restrict either the number of participants in his own debate or the length of their speeches if he does not bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Thank you for drawing my attention to the clock. I will indeed come to a conclusion.

The Executive has been prepared to abuse its position. Not only has a member of the Executive abused her position, but the Executive itself has done the same thing. The Information Service has issued statements totally in Irish on behalf of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. There has been an acceptance that the pursuit of the Irish identity can be tolerated and treated in a sensitive way. However, when it comes to the British national flag, there is no such tolerance on the parts of Sinn Féin/IRA or those from that party who are now Ministers. It is intolerable that they have taken that position, and they must face some form of punitive action from the Assembly and the Executive or the symbols of our national identity will continue to be exploited, debased and attacked.

Mr A Maginness:

I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "condemns" and add

"the abuse of national flags and other symbols and emblems in our community as party political or sectarian symbols and will work to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement."

I never fail to be surprised by the total negativity of Members from the Democratic Unionist Party, and today is no exception. There is a negativity in all their motions which reflects their general melancholia over politics and life here in general. They always seek to condemn and reject; never to accept, praise or promote, and Mr Paisley Jnr's speech has simply reflected that.

This is a sensitive issue. It is a very difficult issue for any divided society. In most societies, flags and emblems are a source of unity and inspiration. That is because there is consensus within those societies about how they should be governed. Sadly, within our society, flags and emblems are seen as a source of provocation, aggravation and division. We have not yet matured politically to the point where we can mutually tolerate the flags and emblems that represent our differing political traditions. Some day, perhaps not too far in the future, we may reach a level of political maturity where Republicans and Nationalists will fully respect the Union flag and associated British emblems. Equally, one hopes that Loyalists and Unionists will fully respect the Irish tricolour and associated Irish Nationalist emblems.

I do not believe that we in the SDLP are being Utopian in seeking those noble aims. For example, in this very Assembly we have accepted the flax flower as our motif, without rancour or disagreement. Those who chose it chose well. Not only is it ornate and attractive, indeed artistic, it is also meaningful. It embodies the most positive aspects of our social and economic history, in which we can all share and of which we can all be proud. It was an inspirational choice, and it will serve as an inspiration for the Assembly in the future.

There are three ways of addressing the question of flags and emblems. First, we could create totally neutral political environments in our public institutions, their offices and spaces. Secondly, we could accord parity of esteem to the flags and emblems of all political and religious traditions in our society.

Thirdly, a new consensual symbolism could be created that the vast majority of society could honour and identify with. I do not suggest that Members can resolve these issues today. But we could reaffirm our common commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to address these issues together and agree on the way forward. This would avoid our being intermittently bedevilled with arcane disputes over flags and emblems that woud unnecessarily disrupt the common quest to create a new, modern and inclusive democracy in Northern Ireland.

I remind Members of what the Good Friday Agreement says about symbols and emblems in paragraph 5 of the chapter dealing with rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity:

"All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division. Arrangements will be made to monitor this issue and consider what action might be required."

Mr Shannon:

Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness:

No. I have very little time.

Let Members act to avoid acrimony and work to create harmony in this institution and beyond. Those who are truly committed to the Good Friday Agreement will find a way to resolve these difficult and deeply emotive issues, and political goodwill will provide the very means of that resolution.

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

This is an important issue, and it is important that it be addressed properly and with due deliberation. I do not think that this debate gives an opportunity for that, but I hope that there will be a serious debate on this issue in the coming weeks. Devolution occurred on 2 December 1999, and many things had to be done to get the new institutions working. Because of the pressure of events, it was not possible to get the issues raised by this motion properly settled in the period between 2 December and Christmas.

Members will find over the coming weeks and months that the Executive, and the Assembly as a whole, will address this issue. It is important that it be dealt with properly and in a way that is sensitive to the rights that should be accorded to people in Northern Ireland, of whatever view, and to the essential elements of the agreement. Great care should also be taken not to insult Her Majesty, who is sovereign and the only sovereign in this land.

The position, as I understand it, is set out in the agreement and the Act. By the agreement, people accept the consent principle and thereby accept that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The agreement commits all parties to accept the legitimacy of that choice.

The Act is clear. Section 23 (1) states

"The executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in Her Majesty".

Executive power is vested in the Queen. A limited element of the Queen's Government is carried on here by us on her behalf and subject to her direction. The position regarding the display of the national flag, as I understand it -

Mr Roche:

Will the Member give way?

The First Minister:


The position regarding display of the national flag, as I understand it, is that Her Majesty has commanded that it be displayed on all public buildings on certain days - official flag days. There is a dispute in Northern Ireland about the status of some additional flag days, and further enquiries need to be made on that. The position regarding certain additional flag days stems from decisions taken many years ago. I understand that there is no question of the Government's, previously the Secretary of State's, having to approve the dates on which flags will be flown in the coming year.

Because some of the dates are movable feasts - for example, Easter - a mechanical job had to be done each year to determine the official flag days. That was the sole status of the list that came out each December. The legal basis has been properly examined, and there is no discretion on the flying of flags on official flag days, though there may be a question about certain dates that were added to the list. Regrettably, in December confusion arose about the basis on which the flag is flown. I have given my understanding of the situation, and research is under way to establish the exact legal basis of the flag days over and above those which Her Majesty has commanded. That is the basis on which we should proceed on this.

I listened with interest to the comments from Mr Alban Maginness, and, in view of what I have said, I think that not one of the three options he suggested is obtainable. It is not possible to abandon the existing national flag. Parity is not possible, because there is only one sovereign here. Nor is it possible to operate in what is called a totally neutral environment if the display of the national flag is regarded as moving in any way from neutrality. I believe that it is possible to have a completely neutral environment that respects the sovereignty which exists here. I am well aware that the flag is, at times, used in a provocative way, but no real objection can be taken to things that fall within the normal course of events.

I heard Mr Ian Paisley Jnr's sneering comments about discussions in the Executive. If he thinks that his party can do a better job, let it come and do it. Its members should stop hiding away. It is very easy to hide in one corner of this Room and sneer in that way, but those Members who do not bother to do the work are not worth listening to.

There is a further serious mistake in the DUP's motion. It talks about granting permission. It will be clear from what I have said that there is no question of permission needing to be granted. I have indicated that it is not possible for my party to support the SDLP's amendment. We have drawn attention to the defective drafting of the DUP's motion, reflecting its lack of knowledge of what we are dealing with, but we will vindicate the legal position.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. We are dealing with the Minister's decision to suspend the flying of the British national flag alone over Department of Health buildings. Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley Jnr described its absence as a flagrant breach of settled policy. However, settled policy does not reflect the views of a great number of people in the Six Counties, and it certainly does not reflect how the issue is dealt with in the Good Friday Agreement:

"All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."

Given that this is contrary to settled policy, there needs to be an urgent review of that policy to reflect this.

The flying of the Union flag has been used as a tool to provoke and intimidate Ntionalists, and that includes its flying on this Building - which houses an Assembly made up of the elected representatives of all the people, and all the political views, in the Six Counties. Indeed, the Church of Ireland's guidelines on this matter, published last year, recommended that churches should not fly the Union flag but, instead, should fly the cross of St Patrick. If we are to build an inclusive society that cherishes all of its people equally, we must stop forcing the symbols and emblems of one community down the throats of another. If the flags that we fly do not reflect all of the people, we should not fly any. Either we fly both the Union flag and the tricolour on the roof of this Building, to symbolise the diversity of our people and the equality of all, or we fly none.

We need to have a neutral environment, a place where we can all work together to promote mutual respect instead of division. Indeed, the only places where flags have been flown in numbers similar to the numbers here are in other places where there has been domination and suppression of one culture, or people, over another. In the Twenty-six Counties, for example, where Irish Nationalism is predominant, you do not see the tricolour everywhere, because none of the communities there feels oppressed.

4.30 pm

There is no abuse of the national flag there, and had Unionists been more generous when they were in government - instead of displaying paranoia and fear in everything they did - we would not have had the Union Jack flying from every telegraph pole, street light, hospital, school and fire station and we would not have had red, white and blue kerbstones in housing estates. Thus there would have been no need for Nationalist communities to reciprocate.

It is unhelpful when Members of a political party continue to demand the retention of symbols which for many people on this island represent sectarianism and the domination and supremacy of one culture over another. While full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement will help to address the equality agenda, thus ensuring fair and equitable treatment for all, we, as public representatives, need to promote mutual understanding, and I urge Members to vote against this motion. The amendment is too vague - we cannot support it either. We need to have a full debate on the use of symbols and emblems in this Building and beyond. Go raibh míle maith agat.


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