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Amendment to the Motion

Part of Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 5:33 pm, 3rd April 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and for the update after the debate we had in Grand Committee last week. He said then that he thought there were only a small number of relevant buildings.

There are two important points behind this. The first is about the flying of a flag to mark Europe Day and the specifics of when that flag should be the Europe flag. This statutory instrument removes permission to fly the Europe flag, even on those five or six buildings, apparently on the grounds that it would cause offence. I do not know whether that is the implication.

The second and serious point behind this is that there seems to be an assumption that because the UK may be about to leave the European Union, if we leave before 8 May—if we do leave—it would be illegal to fly the Europe flag on a public building in Northern Ireland. This seems to be unnecessary legislation with which to detain the House at all, as well as undesirable.

I will develop the arguments that I put in Grand Committee last week. I completely understand that the flying of flags in Northern Ireland is highly sensitive and contentious. We saw how contentious it was when the flying of the union flag in Belfast was limited. It led to riots and the destruction of the office of our sister party, the Alliance Party, so of course I understand the sensitivity of the flying of flags, although I have not heard that flying the Europe flag has caused that kind of reaction in Northern Ireland.

The history of the flag is that it is the Europe flag. Is it is the flag of the European Union, but it is not only the flag of the European Union; it is also the flag of the Council of Europe. Much more to the point, it was originally designed as the flag of the Council of Europe. It was commissioned and brought into use in 1955, a year before the European Community came into existence. That being the case, I point out to the House that there is a serious issue here because Britain was a founder member of the Council of Europe and Britain is not leaving the Council of Europe. The flag is the flag of the Council of Europe, and on that basis there is every good reason that we should show how European we are by flying the flag on Europe Day.

There is an issue about when Europe Day is because the EU designates Europe Day as 9 May, whereas the Council of Europe designates it as 5 May: 5 May was the date of the foundation of the Council of Europe in 1949 and 9 May was the day in 1949 when Schuman made his declaration to commemorate peace in Europe.

There is something fundamentally disturbing about the Government actively wanting to remove any consideration that there might be a flag flying somewhere in the UK, certainly in Northern Ireland, that gives the impression that we have not left the European Union—assuming that we have left—and I would like to turn that on its head.

The reason I have brought my amendment to the Chamber, as well as introducing it in Grand Committee, is that, as the Minister himself said, the guidelines issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for the rest of Great Britain follow the same pattern, the difference being that in the rest of the UK they are just guidelines, whereas in Northern Ireland it is a matter of law. Nevertheless, the recommendation is that the Europe flag should cease to be flown in the UK, should we leave the EU. I think that I have articulated why this flag, as a Europe flag, should continue to be encouraged, and allowed, to be flown. It is to prove a point that Ministers repeatedly make—that we might be leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe. Of course, the Minister has also acknowledged that if we have not left the European Union by 9 May—in other words, if the date of 22 May comes into effect—the flags can fly this year. That also suggests to me that this legislation is not urgent in that context.

Therefore, I ask the Government to reconsider the basic thinking behind the idea that the Europe flag should disappear from public buildings in the UK if we leave the EU. My contention is that the Europe flag still has a place in the UK. I would not mind if the date were changed to coincide with the Council of Europe’s Europe Day to make the point. I gather that there is some difficulty in changing the date but I am sure that, if the will were there, it could be done.

Finally, what is the point of Europe Day in the first place? I think that there is an underlying misbelief that it is a day to celebrate the creation and extension of the European Union. However, it is not and never was. It is a day to celebrate peace in Europe and the continuation of that peace. I would like to think that the British people would want to continue to celebrate the fact that we achieved peace in Europe and that we want to continue to promote peace in Europe, regardless of our detailed relationship with our European partners. Let us remember that there are 47 member states of the Council of Europe, against what will be the 27 member states of the European Union.

Let us also remember, in case of misunderstanding, the design of the flag. As I said, it pre-dated the creation of the European Economic Community. People seem to think that the 12 stars represent the member states—which would be an odd choice because there were originally six—but the 12 stars have nothing to do with the number of member states. They are supposed to be a symbol of perfection. They commemorate the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, the 12 labours of Hercules and the 12 months of the year. They are supposed to be a symbol of universal perfection and the flag is supposed to be a symbol of peace in Europe. I find it extremely disturbing that the Government are taking time to pass a law saying that we should no longer fly a flag that marks peace in Europe and Britain’s continuing commitment to the people of Europe. For that reason, I believe that we should not accept the spirit behind this statutory instrument.