Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 6 June 2000
The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 5 June 2000 was resumed at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
I have to report that a valid Petition of Concern in respect of the motion on the Union flag was tabled last evening, before the Business Office closed. Having checked the petition, I regard it as fulfilling the requirements of Standing Order 27 to allow the vote to take place at the conclusion of the debate today. The motion will require cross-community support to be adopted.
For Members who wish to inspect this or any future Petition of Concern, copies are available in the Business Office.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, at the beginning of the sitting, I referred to the victory of Mr Joey Dunlop in the Isle of Man TT. [Interruption]
Order. The musical interlude is unwelcome in the Chamber.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I said that we congratulated him and that he certainly was the crowned king of the road. I conveyed my personal congratulations, and the House was unanimously pleased. In the House of Commons the Member representing the area concerned would normally express congratulations. Well, I am the Member for Joey’s area. I am not a prophet, or the son of a prophet, but he won the next day too. So he is indeed the crowned king of the road.
Last night it was said on television that the matter had not been raised in the House. The Minister concerned certainly did not raise it. People — especially people from Ballymoney — were ringing my home, irate that the impression had been given that the matter had not been raised in the House. You, Mr Speaker, know otherwise.
I want just to set the record straight so that the people of Ballymoney will know. I hope soon to join Mr Dunlop as a free man of that great town.
Order. I can confirm that the matter was raised yesterday. It is the first item in Hansard, and I am relieved that it is not on the pillion that Dr Paisley will be joining Mr Dunlop.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Dr Paisley raised the matter with me in the Lobby. It refers to my Ulster Television interview with Mike Nesbitt. When I was asked why I had not raised the matter in the House I said that it had been an oversight on my part. I understood that Mr Nesbitt was referring specifically to why I, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, had not raised it.
Further to what Dr Paisley said — and as I said last night — there have been great achievements by our two sportsmen, and no one in this House would attempt to deny that. I was certainly not suggesting that Dr Paisley had not raised the matter yesterday; I was merely agreeing with Mike Nesbitt that I personally had not done so.
It says a lot that the Minister is so ill-informed about what goes on in the Assembly.
It is also appropriate to mention Darren Clarke, not just because he is a native of Dungannon but because he is an excellent ambassador with his great golfing achievements in recent years.
Dr Paisley asked yesterday if it would be in order to make the comments that he made. He also expressed his condolences to the family of Raymond Hanna. I am a little concerned, given the success of his point of order, that it could become popular for such matters to be raised at the start of sittings — not just congratulations but perhaps also the bestowal of good fortune for subsequent performances. I am not sure that this is within Standing Orders or something that we should make a habit of. However, the good wishes of the Assembly undoubtedly go to those who have been mentioned.
Mr Speaker, can you please clarify the situation with regard to Petitions of Concern. You have indicated that you received a Petition and that it has been accepted and is open to inspection. Standing Order 27(1) says
"No vote may be held on a matter which is the subject of a Petition of Concern until at least one day after the Petition of Concern has been presented."
How do you define "one day" in this case? Is it a period of 24 hours, or can the vote be held at any time the next day? And when was this Petition of Concern tabled?
If you turn to the interpretation section at the back of Standing Orders you will find that "day" means a calendar day. It is not necessarily a period of 24 hours. This interpretation was not in initial Standing Orders. A petition must be lodged before the Business Office closes on the day before the business to which it relates, and that is 30 minutes after the rise of the House. Thus, the timing depends on the time of rising that day. This petition was received in due time and was checked by me. The information was then sent to all the Whips, though some may not have received it before their arrival this morning, having left promptly yesterday.
Mr C Wilson:
Will this Petition of Concern from the unholy alliance of the SDLP and Sinn Féin — it is interesting to see all those names together — mean that Dr Paisley’s motion, even if endorsed by a majority, will fall and that the pan-Nationalist front will be able to prevent the Union flag from being flown? Please clarify this for me and for the members of the public in the Gallery, Mr Speaker.
First, the Member must understand that such clarification is for the benefit of the House, and not for people in the Gallery. It is not appropriate for Members to respond to people in the Gallery. Secondly, I trust that the Member is fully aware of and very clear about the Standing Orders, though I am sure that he and other Members are.
The Business Committee decided that two hours should be allocated for this debate. Given the substantial interest that has been shown and the number of Members wanting to speak, I have had to limit the times for this debate and for the debate this afternoon. There will be 15 minutes for the moving of the motion and for winding up. If a Minister wishes to respond at the end of either debate, he or she too will have 15 minutes. All other Members will have just five minutes so that as many as possible may be facilitated.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I beg to move the following motion:
That this Assembly directs that the Union flag shall be flown on Executive buildings in Northern Ireland on all designated days, in keeping with the arrangements for other parts of the United Kingdom and, additionally, on Parliament Buildings on all sitting days.
Mr Speaker, when you refer to a Minister who can speak for 15 minutes at the end of the debate, do you mean a Minister representing the Executive? Or is it any Minister?
It is only a Minister who is responding on behalf of the Executive. It would be normal practice that if the Executive wished to respond — and they do not have to do so, as all matters may not be within their remit — a Minister would make a winding-up speech immediately before that of the mover, and he or she would have 15 minutes. That would be the case on this occasion. I have no indication, at present, that a Minister will respond in this debate.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
The Member need not be worried because I understand no Ministers will be replying, as they are not in a position to speak for a united Executive on this issue.
When I took my seat for the first time in this Chamber I never thought I would be here, 30 years later, having to discuss such a motion. The fact that this motion is necessary today proves that concession after concession has been given to the pan-Nationalist front, and the names of their representatives are on the Petition of Concern. We know who they are and we know that their aim and common policy is to divest this part of the United Kingdom of all aspects of Britishness.
In the main hall of this building there are four rings just outside the entrance to the Members’ dining room. Two flags used to hang there — the flag of our nation and the standard of Northern Ireland. They were taken away. I did my best to find out who did it. No one has ever owned up to why they were taken away. Having divested the inside of the building of its flags the pan-Nationalist front are going to try and divest the outside of the building also. This is a growing matter which will not go away.
We remember that even in the forum we had difficulty with the flag. Of course that difficulty came from Mr McGuinness. We had to battle to get the flag put up even inside the forum building.
Others on the periphery of the pan-Nationalist front are prepared to agree on this issue. We will see today who is in agreement and who is not.
The petition can prevent the motion, if it is passed, from having any power. That is the veto that has been handed to those who want to carry out the Republican agenda in this House. It will always be put into use to maintain the Executive and those who believe that the way forward for Northern Ireland is the Republican way, which is set forth in the Agreement. That veto will continue.
The national flag flies upon the Parliament of every democratic country in the world. It also flies on the regional Parliaments, and there is evidently no objection to that. However, in Northern Ireland we find elements who are not prepared to allow the wishes of the majority to be the guiding factor. This flag issue shows the total and absolute falsehood and hypocrisy of the SDLP, Sinn Féin and their allies. They say they believe in the principle of consent, and in the consent of the majority of the people. The majority of the people in this country want this flag to fly. The majority of the people in this country have a right to have their national flag flying. It flies by decree of the Queen, who directs that this should be done. There are people here that strike not only at the flag but also at the sovereign and anything that is British. We have an anti-British campaign that wants to ensure that the national flag will not fly.
The flag also flies, as I pointed out to the Prime Minister the last time I saw him, on all sitting days of the national Parliament. It used to fly on this Building on sitting days, but now we have the first step — it will fly only on those sitting days which coincide with the named days. So we already have a dilution of the flying of the flag. Let us return to where we should never have left. Our flag, the flag of this nation, should fly on all sitting days of this Assembly. This is a regional Government of part of the United Kingdom, and this Assembly is the regional Assembly. Therefore the flag of the United Kingdom should be flown. It is puerile to argue that another flag should be placed alongside it.
The South of Ireland did not need to have any argument about this matter. When the border was drawn, 10% of the people were Protestant and, in the majority, Unionist, but they have been almost eliminated. Today only 2·5% of the population of the South are Protestant. As a result, by the elimination of the people, they eliminated any bother about which flag should fly. I did not hear from the parties opposite a loud cry: "Let both flags fly over Dublin castle". I did not hear that cry, because it is the right of the minority. Well, they have very little minority left. Perhaps when all the minority has gone they will consider that matter.
It is puerile for Members to say: "Oh, if you fly both flags, we will let you fly them". Mr McGuinness, who is absent today, and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety do not run Northern Ireland. He may run an office in Northern Ireland, but he will not dictate to the people of Northern Ireland what the national flag is. It is not the tricolour. The majority of the people of Northern Ireland — [Interruption]
Evidently, the First Minister is going to join them. The majority of the people of Northern Ireland will not have it. It is a very dangerous thing to advocate the removal of the National flag because it is an issue that goes to the very heart of people’s faith and heritage. We are not in the Irish Republic yet.
Mr R Hutchinson:
Does the Member agree that this is not only a matter of the flying of the Union flag but of our Britishness and everything in our culture that is British and Orange? The SDLP Members in particular, after the release of their internal document, seem to have gone from a paler shade of green to the darkest shade of green ever.
This has been portrayed by their Member from East Antrim who, on every occasion, has taken the opportunity to condemn the RUC and to tell us that the RUC turns a blind eye to the attacks on the minority community in Larne. I condemn any attack on anyone, but I also condemn the lies told about the RUC turning a blind eye to anyone being attacked in Larne, or anywhere else. I ask the Member to bring forward any evidence he may have. I ask him to speak up or shut up.
Order. I fail to see the relevance of this particular attack on another Member to the motion that is before the House. If the Member wishes to respond, since he has been particularly spoken of, he will have that right. Please continue, Dr Paisley.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I am not responsible for what people say when I give way, but I think that my Friend made a fair point. When we are speaking about the Republican agenda, I welcome the fact that today in another place, where I hope to be very shortly, Her Majesty’s Opposition is going to take the attitude that the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill should not get a second reading. We are glad, because things are happening in this country and someone must put the brakes on the Republican agenda and say "So far and no further".
Why are these people offended about the Union flag? When they take their pay, are they offended about the Queen’s head on the coin, and do they say "No"? We used to have an old slogan here — although it does not match with the present coinage — that they loved the half-crown but they did not like the Crown. It is absolute hypocrisy. Do they want two sorts of money?
There was a time when they did have two sorts of money. There was a hen on some coins. It was wonderful — they were loyal to a hen. They can have their choice of animals, but as far as this nation is concerned there is one coinage — and I am glad that the Euro is doing so badly — and, not only that, there is one flag. That is the flag of this United Kingdom.
I could say many other things, but I should remark on the statement by the press that the building in which the Secretary of State holds office is owned by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Minister’s directive, which was not even a legal directive, caused the Secretary of State not to have a flag flying on his building. He is the man that the Executive asked to be the future adjudicator on this matter. What trust could we have in the Secretary of State to fly the Union flag? None whatsoever.
He was very careful to say, in the House of Commons, that the flag will fly while he is around. However, he is not going to be around. We know that the talk in Westminster is that the Prime Minister wants him back, as quickly as he can, to prepare for the election. When he goes, who is going to hold the Government to that pledge?
It is regrettable that we have to discuss this matter. It is an insult to our flag to be told that we have to have the flag of another nation flying beside it, a nation whose Foreign Minister tells us that there is too much Britishness in Northern Ireland and that we have to remove it. He may rub out some things on documents — his colleagues are very good at that, hence all the investigations into their financial integrity — but he will not be rubbing out the loyalty of the people to the flag of this nation and the loyalty of the people to their roots.
We are British and proud of it, and we will fly the Union flag irrespective of what motions may be put down and what action may be taken by the pan-Nationalist front. We will not be bowing the knee to the pan-Nationalist front, and we are not going to be subjected to bare flagpoles just because IRA/Sinn Féin says we cannot fly the Union Jack. They have fired on the flag, they have bombed it, and they have tried to destroy it, but it will still fly in spite of them all.
I intend to give a measured response rather than a bombastic response.
This motion is about rights. It is about equality. It is about what the Human Rights Commission has to do to subscribe to international standards and practices that apply elsewhere. Indeed, I contend that it is not for the Assembly to decide whether or not a flag should fly. It could even be reasonably well argued that it is not for the London Government to have discretion over whether or not this flag should fly. There are international standards that apply in the flying of the flag and the recognition of the constitution, and which all, I repeat all, Mr Speaker, should subscribe to. That is why I say that this motion is about rights.
Some say in this debate that this is a concession which we, as Unionists, seek. Some say that it is a demand or a want. Indeed, some say — and here I look at the DUP — that somehow this is a cultural issue, as did Conor Murphy. This is not cultural.
Who said that?
Who said that? I read the article in Saturday’s ‘News Letter’ where Dr Paisley wrote about the cultural rights of the British. See Mervyn Parley for the quotation.
This is not a concession. It is not cultural. It is simply one thing: it is to do with the constitutional status of the region of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. That is what it is. In other words, when we deal with rights and equality — and this is the fundamental principle accepted by all throughout the democratic world — when we deal with parity, equality, identity, ethos, aspirations, they are all to be subscribed to in equal terms within the context of the state already being defined and the constitution already being recognised. There is nothing to say about joint sovereignty, condominium or the flying of two flags side by side, one of a nation state that is a neighbour and one that is ours. That is what this is clearly about. The Human Rights Commission — [Interruption]
I am trying to support what you are saying. I wish the DUP would keep quiet. Let us take the Human Rights Commission, this august body that is meant to define the rights that we all have to subscribe to.
The commission asks why we need a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It goes on to say that a Bill of Rights is needed for Northern Ireland because we have communal lines with clearly identifiable majority and minority communities — that is our problem. What rights does the commission say it must address? Remember that this is the Human Rights Commission, not I. It talks of four things: equality, education, language and communal cultural rights. I agree with all of those, since they are the rights to be addressed given the definition of the state.
The commission goes on to ask where one can find such cultural rights to be identified. It says that they can be found in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities — namely, the Council of Europe, the home for all international standards accepted by all. That is what the Human Rights Commission says. What does that framework convention say? Let us be unambiguous. It supports rights and equality as defined by international consensus — not merely by a small-scale Assembly in a region of the United Kingdom. Let me make it clear that we are subject to international consensus. It also means cultural, linguistic, educational and religious rights of equality. Article 20 of the framework convention is unambiguously clear in stating — and I end on this point — that there is a fundamental principle upon which all other rights are to be based, and it is something that is supported by every international expert in human rights. Majorities and minorities should respect national law and the constitution, which means respecting the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as demonstrated by the flag.
The heat under Members’ collars, clerical and lay, demonstrates the depth of feeling already generated on this, as we might expect, contentious issue. Fortunately, we seem to be leaving the fields of conflict which have scarred the face of our countryside and, worse, have seen immense tragedy in our communities. It seems the flags which led people onto those fields of conflict remain a cause of dissension. If we do not display the maturity and sense of responsibility necessary to remove this dissension, the very divisions that the Good Friday Agreement intended to remove will persist and fester.
I wish to reflect for a moment on the significance of flags in order to help our deliberations in as positive a way as possible. For me, one flag, the Irish tricolour, represents in its green, white and orange colours a very noble aspiration — that of peace, reconciliation and unity through agreement between the main political traditions of this island. However, it is because of what that flag represents that I deplore, and have always deplored, its staining with the blood of people from either tradition. I have deplored and condemned — and my party has done likewise — the activities of those who, in the name of the aspiration that that flag represents, have caused that blood to be spilt. I equally deplore abuses of the flag, evident when it is used to antagonise others, most especially to antagonise those with whom the peace, reconciliation, agreement and unity it represents are intended to be achieved.
As to the Union flag, I must admit that it evokes no warmth in me at all, but as the tricolour evokes in me very positive sentiments, I recognise that the Union flag must evoke positive feelings in those on the other side of the Chamber. However, I have witnessed so many incidents and have learnt of many others where it has been used to antagonise, to taunt, and to express a sense of dominance over those in the community that I and my Colleagues represent. I cannot but question the motives of those who are speaking in favour of its display here today. Such abuses are very far from the mere expression of the status of Northern Ireland, as many protesting in favour of its display claim. Indeed, many making this claim are often to be found among those responsible for its misuse.
As a Minister I have not issued instructions regarding the display of the Union flag, or of any other flag, at my Department’s buildings. Current practice will therefore persist until we arrive at an agreed common position.
As the Good Friday Agreement urges, I fully support the recommendation that we approach this issue with sensitivity and seek to develop a common understanding and code of conduct for the display of flags and emblems by our new institutions. In doing so I believe that we should strive to arrive at a situation where we have an agreed set of common emblems and flags to represent the institutions agreed to in the Good Friday Agreement. For these reasons members of my party and others have signed a Petition of Concern to have this issue addressed by the Assembly to enable us to pursue agreement on this very contentious matter. In doing so, I look forward to the assistance that the Human Rights Commission and others may want to afford us as we seek such agreement.
To avoid confusion, may I draw attention to the fact that in a time-limited debate, intervention times come out of the time allocated to Members.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. This motion coming from the DUP is not about flags. It is not even about respect for or allegiance to a flag. I think that the Member who moved the motion spoke about running. In fact, the motion is about a party running for its life in advance of progress and change — change that recognises that the only way forward for these six counties of this little island is, in the words of the Good Friday Agreement,
"to affirm our commitment to mutual respect, civil rights and religious liberties."
Now, I know that it is very difficult for the majority of those elected to the Assembly to affirm respect for a party which has publicly threatened to wreck the Assembly and to make it unworkable, a party whose members have consistently used, or should I say abused, their position as elected representatives to deny everyone else their right to respect, to civil rights and even to religious liberty. [Laughter]
They can laugh, but the history of their party is steeped in it.
I do not propose to go into the history of the DUP or its party leader whose rise to fame we all know about. His career and the careers of his party members were carved out by haranguing and abusing those who disagreed with them. As well as the British Queen’s — [Interruption] Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
Order. The Member will resume her seat. I intervene at this point, as I have done previously, to direct that Members who stray off the motion and address the question of another Member would be advised not to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am unable to hear my Colleague even though I am sitting beside her.
That is why I have called for order. Please continue, Mrs Nelis.
We have seen this party haranguing church leaders. They were at it again last night, haranguing President Mary McAleese and the newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Dr Trevor Morrow. Everything they do or say is about division, whether it be about flying flags or rotating Ministers. That is all they are capable of — promoting sectarianism and fomenting civil strife. Do not let this motion fool anyone. Even if the Reverend party leader wraps himself in the Union Jack and flies it from the top of Westminster, it is not going to stop the change which the Good Friday Agreement and 84% of the people of this island, North and South, clearly spelt out. It is called equality. Do they know what that means? Well, I will tell them, for they do not know. It means that the flag I recognise and uphold, which represents my political allegiance on this island of Ireland and which, in its origins, symbolises the unity of orange and green traditions, is entitled to be flown alongside the Union Jack on all buildings. That is called parity of esteem and it means that where British symbols are used in public life, equivalent Irish symbols must be given equal prominence.
All who signed up to the Good Friday Agreement acknowledge the need for sensitivity in the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need to use symbols and emblems in a manner which promotes mutual respect and human rights, rather than division. In circumstances where it is not possible to fly both flags, none should be flown. It is the right of all of the people on this island that we create and uphold the principle of an equal or neutral working environment central to parity of esteem but also — and I remind the proposer of this motion — enshrined in law.
This issue is not about flags. This issue, and the one that we should be debating, are whether we can, through the unique formula which is the Good Friday Agreement, involve ourselves in the political process which will address the issues of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity. We are back again in this Assembly, and we have another chance to further develop the peace process. This motion is what we have come to expect. [Interruption]
Order. If Members keep interrupting, and I have to intervene on points of order, the time does not come out of the Member’s time — it merely prolongs it.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The clock shows 5.16.
I am aware of what the clock shows. If the Member had been listening he would have appreciated what I was saying, which was that when Members require the Speaker to intervene on a point of order, that does not come out of the Member’s time.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The clock has stopped.
Yes, of course the clock has stopped. It is meant to stop. The clock has stopped because the Speaker was intervening at that point. It did not stop when the Speaker intervened at the earlier point, and he intervened because of the kerfuffle being caused in that Member’s corner.
I ask Mrs Nelis to bring her remarks to a close.
A Chathaoirligh, this motion is what we have come to expect from the "No, nay, never, up-the-pole" party. We have more important matters to deal with in this Assembly so let us get on with it. I oppose the motion.
In her concluding remarks Mrs Nelis used the expression "up the pole". Is that parliamentary language?
It appears to be relevant to flags, which is the subject of the motion.
Whilst I do not agree with the Republicans in their attitude to the flying of flags in Northern Ireland, my party rejects the way in which today’s motion seeks to further politicise the use of the Union flag. That is why we sought to bring forward a reasoned amendment which would have removed the misuse of the Union flag on every sitting day, while leaving the current practice for Government buildings on designated flag days. That is also why we suggested and signed the Petition of Concern. It was not a pan-Nationalist front, Mr Wilson.
There are a number of reasons why people fly flags. A flag can be used as an expression of identity. In that context, if I wish to fly one flag and my neighbour wishes to fly a different flag on her property, that is the right of each of us, subject only to our keeping the peace. If one of my neighbours wishes to put up a Union flag for the Queen’s birthday, another wishes to fly St Patrick’s cross on 17 March, and I want to put up a red dragon every time there is a rugby match in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, that is our right. We should have — [Interruption] Was that a point of order?
Point of information, Mr Speaker.
No. I am not giving way for anybody. I have only five minutes.
With the exception of the emblems of illegal organisations, we each should tolerate the other, and, in turn, we should have our wishes tolerated. A flag can be flown also as a symbol of sovereignty. That is the difference between a private house, an Orange hall, or a GAA club, and a Government building. A flag on a Government building can only be a statement of sovereignty. That is why I cannot see any possibility of the tricolour’s being flown alongside the Union flag on any Government building, because it does not fit with the principle of consent, and it seems to me the logic of the Sinn Féin position is that the Union flag should now fly over Rathgael House in Bangor in perpetuity. If they wish the tricolour to fly alongside the Union flag as a recognition of one section of this community, then should there be any possible constitutional change, they must accept that the Union flag should fly alongside the tricolour forever as a recognition of the identity of another section of the community.
The third reason for flying flags in Northern Ireland is possibly the most important, and that is to get one over on the "other side". That is the mentality that nails flags up every available telegraph pole. That is done to stake out territory and tell people they are not welcome. The only thing that can be said in its favour is that, by and large, Republicans do not fly their flag upside down.
Today’s motion represents a test of the commitment of the different parties to the mutual respect and tolerance I spoke of — the respect and tolerance which is enshrined in the agreement. I believe that the UUP and the PUP should actually oppose the provocative use of their national flag, the Union flag. While the proposal to fly the Union flag on this building on every sitting day is not quite the same as waving it in the streets, or nailing it up telegraph poles, it seems to me that the effect is the same. Possibly the intent is the same. It is to seek forcibly to remind those who are offended by it that they are in a minority. It is to tell them they are not welcome.
Many Unionists, indeed many supporters of my party, view the Union flag, not as something with which to taunt people, which seems to be the aim of many people in this Chamber, but as a dignified statement of their beliefs and values. As someone who is not a Unionist but who lost an uncle in the fight against fascism sixty years ago, I know exactly how deep those feelings run, and how sincere they can be. Those people have a right to see their symbols treated with respect by everybody, not treated as cheap political rags and misused by some.
Of course, sovereignty in the context in which we now live is neither absolute nor indivisible. Alliance recognises that Northern Ireland is part of a decentralising British Isles. To adopt Mrs Thatcher’s famous dictum, it is actually now no longer possible to be exactly as British as those in Finchley, whether you live in Fishguard, Finvoy or Fortwilliam, and, indeed, the way the European Union is now evolving into a federal Europe, it is possible that you will soon be almost as British whether you live in Frankfurt or Fuengirola.
Alliance wishes to see the development of common shared symbols which can unite, not divide, our people. In the absence of any agreement on new symbols, maintenance of the status quo is the best approach at this time. We reject the suggestions that the Union flag and the tricolour should be flown together. We see this as the route to an apartheid society, one which says that there are two sections which are equal, and they — like George Orwell’s pigs — are rather more equal than every other section.
We want to build a society that is united but diverse. We need shared common symbols. The Assembly’s flax plant is perhaps the first example. The European flag should also be considered since it can be seen as a focus of unity rather than division. In the absence of any agreement on a way forward, we should maintain the status quo and reject the motion.
I support the motion. It is scandalous that Sinn Féin/IRA Ministers refuse to fly the Union flag over Government buildings. I have here a list of days on which the Union flag must be flown under well-established practices. The Sinn Féin Ministers’ actions are deliberately provocative and appalling. This is an attack on Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. These so-called Ministers have acted beyond their authority and must be condemned utterly by the House. They have insulted the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. At a time of deep crisis for the National Health Service and education, the Sinn Féin Ministers are more interested in cheap political stunts such as preventing the flying of our country’s flag than in the wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland. Recently, someone in need of a hospital operation had to make way for another so-called kneecapping victim. The Sinn Féin Health, Social Services and Public Safety Minister is strangely silent on that issue.
The fact that Sinn Féin Ministers in this fundamentally flawed Executive can refuse to fly our country’s flag demonstrates that the Belfast Agreement offers nothing to Unionists, in spite of the utterances of David Trimble and some UUP Members that it copper-fastens the Union. If the prevention of the flying of the flag on Castle Buildings — a Government building — represents copper-fastening the Union, what would the UUP see as weakening the Union? I have here a statement issued by the Ulster Unionist Party on 22 May 2000:
"Thanks to our negotiating team, only the Union flag will be flown from Government buildings, and the proud name of the RUC will be preserved … Unlike our opponents, who talk a lot but never deliver, we actually managed to negotiate significant and tangible concessions from the Government."
That was written by David Trimble. I ask him if the flying of the Union flag is a concession.
The SDLP says that there should be mutual respect. We have had 30 years of bombs and bullets. Where was the mutual respect for the Unionist community in that? We hear from Nationalists about Union flags and red, white and blue kerbstones. What about Republican triumphalism on the Garvaghy Road, the Ormeau Road and many other areas where we see tricolours and green, white and gold kerbstones? The Government’s neutrality has created the ludicrous situation where if Nationalists object to the Union flag, under the Belfast Agreement it can no longer be flown on Government buildings.
The Alliance Party is now part of the pan-Nationalist front which today has signed a petition to prevent us from voting that the Union flag must be flown. The Union flag is flown permanently at Westminster, except during a royal visit when the royal standard is flown. It is flown permanently on the building used by the Welsh Assembly. It is also flown on occasion on the Scottish Parliament’s buildings and Government offices.
The Union flag, and only the Union flag, should be flown permanently on Parliament Buildings and on all Government buildings to bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is scandalous for a Northern Ireland Office spokesman to say that this is a matter for the parties to agree among themselves. That attitude is totally unacceptable. I call for a full investigation by the House into the comments made by faceless civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office. They must be taken to task over that unacceptable attitude.
Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, yet our British culture and identity continue to be attacked. The list is endless: parades, the oath of allegiance, the RUC, portraits of Her Majesty. Sinn Féin/IRA even blocked the Duchess of Abercorn from visiting St Mary’s Primary School in Pomeroy, County Tyrone to promote a cross-community writing competition.
The actions of Sinn Féin/IRA Ministers have been grossly offensive to all Unionists, whether they voted "Yes" or "No". They confirm that the Belfast Agreement is fundamentally flawed. It is a charter of deceit, and those who have been deceived are the misguided pro-Agreement Unionists who foolishly trusted the Belfast Agreement. They thought the agreement would safeguard their British identity in the face of aggressive Irish Republicanism, which is determined to impose Irishness on British people.
This debate is about more than flags. It goes to the heart of the Belfast Agreement. That agreement was sold to Unionist and Nationalist voters with entirely different arguments. For Unionists, the agreement was supposed to secure their British citizenship after thirty years of Republican terrorism. For Nationalists, it was to create a transitional arrangement in which Unionism gave ground and of which a united Ireland would be the inevitable outcome.
The removal of the Union flag from Government buildings by Sinn Féin/IRA is clear evidence of the Republican movement’s hatred of all things British. Just when we are commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Dunkirk, where many lives were lost for freedom and democracy, and when, in a few weeks, on 1 July, we will remembering those brave Ulstermen who lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme fighting under the Union flag, Sinn Féin/IRA are insulting their memories and what they died for. [Interruption]
Despite these ongoing attacks by the pan-Nationalist front on British culture and identity, I call on all Unionists to fly the Union flag on their homes as a clear statement of British identity.
The symbolic nature of flags can be traced back to ancient times. They have been used to lead armies to victory, and to crown man's greatest achievements - whether landing on the moon or conquering a mountain peak. They have been used to claim ownership of vast territories and, of course, they have been used in Northern Ireland, as has already been mentioned, to mark out territory.
Also, the Romans used flags to identify their legions on the battlefield. There has been much talk recently about the symbols of the RUC, but flags, particularly the Union flag, can stir up emotions that few other symbols can. Since the passage of the Act of Union in 1800, the cross of St Patrick that so many people want to remember -
Mr McNamee rose.
Is this a point of order?
I will not give way.
Since the passage of the Act of Union in 1800 the cross of St Patrick has been part of the Union flag, symbolising the unity of the kingdom. It is perhaps ironic that the current problem with the Union flag comes at a time when the flag should be flown over Government buildings to celebrate the Queen's coronation in 1953. The Ulster flag, with its six-pointed star - one for each county in Northern Ireland - and its crown, was created in 1953 for the Queen's coronation. It was a civil flag for Northern Ireland, but its official status was abolished when the Northern Ireland Parliament was closed down in 1973. Thereafter, the Union flag was made the official flag in Northern Ireland. That is a fact.
The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act 1954 outlawed the display of a flag likely to cause a breach of the peace - clearly meaning the Irish tricolour - and made it an offence to interfere with the display of the Union flag. That Act appears to have been repealed in the United Kingdom during the 1980s.
Although the Union flag has never been officially adopted by law as the national flag of the United Kingdom, it has become so by usage - and that is acceptable in the strange system that we call the British constitution. The Government stated that it is the correct flag for use by British citizens. The situation is slightly different at sea, as the Government has reserved the Union flag for specific military purposes. In fact, it should only be called the Union Jack by the Royal Navy.
Interestingly, the Flag Institute has published the draft of a Flag Act that would confirm in law the Union flag's status as our national flag. It also lays down some specifications and a usage code that some Members would be quite happy to see, and that has already been mentioned. The institute is lobbying to have the document put before Parliament in time for the bicentenary of the United Kingdom and the current Union flag in 2001. On 26 May Peter Mandelson said that those who attacked the agreement played on the fears that it would diminish their identity and undermine their tradition. He claimed that it did no such thing, and that it cherished diversity, securing British identity while recognising and respecting Nationalists and Republicans who do not share that identity.
I suggest that one of the most potent symbols of our Britishness is the Union flag, and if any attempts are made to diminish it, to discredit it, or to take it down, then that is taking away from the consensus part of the so-called Belfast Agreement. I would have thought that the consent principle was recognising the rights of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland who wanted to retain their British citizenship.
But, at a stroke, when one starts pulling down the Union flag one is taking away, in a very symbolic way, the essence of that consent principle - the right of the people to determine their future under the flag of the British Crown.
The 'Belfast Telegraph' of 26 May said of the agreement:
"The reality is that it seeks to establish a new dispensation based on consensus, equality and mutual respect."
Where are the consensus, equality and mutual respect when the Union flag is not acceptable? We demand from all Members a basic civility towards the flag and symbols which reflect the fact that they are living in, and indeed some are governing, a part of the United Kingdom.
I am minded of those who are determined to make me respectable in a world that is not respectable. I have been listening to guffaws and hee-haws all around me on what is an extremely serious and difficult subject. Many within the Nationalist community hear those guffaws and hee-haws, and yesterday they witnessed, as one Member said, an opportunity to destroy or cause serious wounding to that "fundamentally flawed Executive" as he lifted his papers and left. It was by leave of the Assembly that they could have inflicted serious damage and refused to do so.
So when the Nationalist community interprets from guffaws and hee-haws the real truth that the huffers and the puffers have no intention of pulling the house down, they should not misunderstand that as being the view and the will and the attitude of the people in our society.
Flags, as has already been said, give rise to serious concern. People fight all over the world about them. We would have fought over them, and probably did in many ways, prior to Good Friday, April 1998. But when we look at the issue of the Union flag being flown on public buildings in our society we should be minded that this is not pre-1998 - it is post-1998.
As a politician - and some would say that I am still an amateur one - I have represented a group of people whom many here may not like, and even the Members to my left may not like them. Those people comprised the Combined Loyalist Military Command. They predicated a ceasefire on six specific principles. One of those principles was that there was to be no diminution of the Britishness of Northern Ireland, provided, of course, that such was by the will of the people. Well, the Britishness of Northern Ireland has been copper-fastened as the will of the people.
Whether we like it or not, we once heard Gerry Adams talk about embracing his Protestant brothers and sisters. I suppose the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement is that he accepted that he would have to embrace his British brothers and sisters.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and Dermot Nesbitt is absolutely correct when he divorces the flying of the flag on a public building from an expression of culture. It is not an expression of culture; it is a specific constitutional statement that reflects the terms of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland's constitutional position.
There is in many ways a foolishness about the debate and about the Petition of Concern. There is a foolishness abroad that makes us forget that in 1966 a flag had to be removed from the offices of Sinn Féin - I might once have described it as the IRA, and then it became the Official IRA. There was a demand for that flag to be removed using the public order legislation, and, of course, those people who were responsible for that are sitting not very far away from me.
That flag, by the way, was not removed by the state. I know the identity of the person who did it, but, of course, I have to be careful as there is no statute of limitations in Northern Ireland. I know the person who broke the window and took the flag out at the behest of those who were bellicose ranters demanding that either the state do it, or they would. Then that flag was replaced by hundreds of flags.
Surely that is the lesson. It seems quite ludicrous that the flag that was taken was the flag of the Irish Republic: the tricolour. Those people who say that the tricolour is their flag are creating exactly the same difficulties when they demand that the Union flag does not fly.
They are creating a head of steam, they are creating a sense of anger and bitterness. They are reminding us of the 72 days in which we had an Executive and in which we had Carrickmore and Pomeroy. We had the circumstances of the debacle of an attempt, quite legitimate under the Good Friday Agreement, to extradite Angelo Fusco. We had all of that in-your-face pathetic politics by the Republican movement outside this Building and, indeed, some not very sensible things inside this Building. If it is to be delivered to the people of Northern Ireland - including the Combined Loyalist Military Command - and accepted by Unionists, the expression of Irishness contained in the Good Friday Agreement has to be dealt with on a proactive basis. This expression of Irishness would appear to mean, as far as the Nationalist representatives are concerned, the diminution of the Unionist position in Northern Ireland.
We in the Women's Coalition are very aware of the highly sensitive nature of this debate. We do not approach it lightly. On the contrary, we understand that the issue of flags, emblems and symbols of our culture, our political aspiration or our constitutional status is a fundamental question which lies at the very core of the new arrangements we are putting in place. It is exactly because this issue is important that we believe it should be the subject of serious studied debate over time and not of a simple show of hands on the floor of the Assembly or a 30-second sound bite to satisfy a media hungry for controversy. In the House of Commons last month the Secretary of State said the issue of flags was best resolved by the Northern Ireland Executive, and we agree. In the event of a dispute the Secretary of State has the power to set the regulations if
"the issue is becoming a palpable source of division among its Members".
We believe this should provide the space necessary for us to work our way into this unique fledgling democracy and give us time to build the ground we have in common, rather than that which divides us.
The Good Friday Agreement clearly recognises the fact that, while the sovereignty of the United Kingdom is maintained through the will of the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland, such sovereignty will be exercised in the context of the
"just and equal treatment of the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities".
In other words, the expression of sovereignty should be managed in such a way that it is both sensitive and sympathetic to those who do not hold similar aspirations. Why, for example, do we insist that symbols automatically follow sovereignty? Do we lack the confidence to know who we are without having to rub each other's noses in it? This is not about the reduction of Britishness or Irishness; it is about learning to live together. This may not be a marriage, but it is a cohabitation of sorts. Everyone knows that when you live together in partnership, you have to make compromises. If one partner wants to paint the front of the house one colour and the other partner wants to paint the front of the house another colour, the best and only way to achieve harmony is either not to paint the house at all or to choose a colour which is neutral and which is acceptable, not just to both but to all who live in that house.
This Assembly is the new home of our Government.
Will the Member take a point of information?
We have got to look at all the options available to us. Should we, for example, avoid flying the official flag and make a neutral working environment in line with the fair employment legislation, or should we agree symbols that reflect a shared identity?
We managed to agree the flax flowers as the symbol of the Assembly without controversy, and they are accepted by all. Alternatively, if we truly want to reflect our status, why should we not be proud to fly the European flag on every public building?
This is just the second week of our new Government, and we have much to do. I make this point with much sincerity: our farmers, who gathered here in their thousands asking for our help, did not stop to check if the Union flag was flying before they marched up these steps. Our textile workers and our young people are more concerned about staying out of the dole office than about whether a flag, or which one, is flying above it. We are here to make life better for them and for others in our community, and that is what we intend to do.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The contributions today are rather interesting. I am sad that Mr Ervine is away because I noticed that he was clearly smarting from the skilful planning of the DUP in the Assembly yesterday - he could not hide his disgust and his disappointment that we allowed the finances to go on. He wanted us to hurt the ordinary people, to rob money from the farmers and to stop the operations for patients. It would have given him pleasure to have stopped the schools for the children. We intend, as a party, to make the Executive bite the dust, not the ordinary, decent, law-abiding people of this country.
What we are reaping today are the fruits of the Belfast Agreement. We are seeing concession after concession. The pan-Nationalist front has its begging bowl out more and more, and it is getting cheekier.
We heard from a Member from Londonderry. I cannot understand why she would be angry about the Union flag. Did her husband not fight under the Union flag? Was he not glad, as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, to fight under the Union flag and be a part of the country?
Perhaps because of the embarrassment of her past, she is trying to impress her new credentials upon those whom she now wants to embrace her. It ill becomes people to try to pretend something rather than face the realities.
The sad reality is that we are having an anti-British campaign, not only from without but from within the Executive. And who put them in the Executive? Members of the Ulster Unionist Party, as part of the Belfast Agreement, voted them in - and put them back in just recently -ensuring that Martin would be the head of education and Barbara Brown would be head of health, both running Departments.
Interestingly enough, while they condemn Britishness, it was their two Departments that received more money from the British exchequer recently. It was education and health that got the injection of money from the British exchequer. Of course, who could better hold out their begging bowls than Republicans - that is how they have lived and practised all their years.
It seems to be politically correct today not to put up a photograph of Her Majesty the Queen - that is not allowed. You cannot walk freely down Her Majesty's highway; you cannot fly the flag of your country; you cannot take an oath of allegiance to the Queen. On and on the concessions go, and it is rather empty for Members of the Ulster Unionist Party to bleat empty phrases of horror when it comes to this issue because this is a part of their agreement - they had the power to stop it.
The agreement was sold on falsehood. There were three principles. First of all we were told the consent principle had been settled, and settled forever. All those who signed up to the agreement had signed up to the principle of consent; they had accepted, acknowledged and embraced the fact that Northern Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom. What utter rubbish. The people were sold a lie, and we are reaping the harvest of that lie.
Secondly, there was the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The name and the badge were solved in the piece of paper that Mr Taylor held in his pocket. Yet in a meeting with Mr Ingram - and my party leader was there - the Minister said that the name of the gallant RUC would not appear in the long or short title of the Bill coming before Parliament today.