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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 Deben Lord Deben Conservative 5:33 pm, 3rd April 2019

My Lords, I was present in the original debate in the other House when we agreed on the rules for Northern Ireland. Therefore, I hope that nobody will suggest that I am not extremely sympathetic to the concerns about flags in the north of Ireland. There is no doubt that the union flag was being used as a sectarian flag rather than a union flag, and therefore we passed regulations saying that the flag could be used only on certain dates. We also passed an arrangement that enabled us to change that. It is a very clear arrangement which means that a change can be made only with all-community agreement.

That is my first problem with this proposal. When we discussed it with the Minister, he said that we cannot change the date when the flag is flown to the 5th in order to make it clear that it is for the Council of Europe because that would need the agreement of all the communities—but we can stop the flying of the flag without the agreement of all the communities. That seems to be a very odd decision. He will say, of course —and he has—that that is what we said in the withdrawal Act. Well, we can make mistakes. I do not think that anybody in debating the withdrawal Act thought that the Government would specifically bring forward a Motion that does not have the proper assurance of all the communities in the north of Ireland.

My first point, therefore, is that it is entirely unsuitable for the Government to take it upon themselves to suggest that Parliament should support a fundamentally divisive decision, which takes from the due course the right to make the list of days on which the union flag may be flown. I perfectly well accept the Minister’s statement that only five flagpoles are affected by the flag of Europe. I am rather pleased that the noble Lord raised this and brought it back to the House, otherwise we would never have made that calculation. The Government seem to think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to pass and does not really need a discussion.

Of course, we are not talking about a large number of occasions, or a large number of flagpoles—but we are talking about a fundamental issue. We fought for that decision in the teeth of opposition of many Unionist Members of the House of Commons. We fought for it, we were called all sorts of names, but we thought it right because it was important for all the communities to make those decisions. We are now overriding that.

I admit that this was passed by a Labour Government —in fact, it was brilliantly introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson. It was one of the best speeches I have ever heard him make and he carried the House in a most remarkable way. It was passed, and passed in a way that seems to me to be affronted by this proposition, which means that we—unilaterally, without the agreement of the community—are going to make the change.

My second point is that, in the north of Ireland, the community obviously thought rather differently from people in other parts of the United Kingdom. They voted to remain within the European Union—leave alone supporting Europe in general or the European Council. So it seems particularly important that all the communities should be consulted. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell us—as no doubt he will—that this is very difficult because there is no Northern Ireland Assembly. It may be difficult, but it is one of the things you just have to live with.

This is not a controversial issue in any real sense, unless we invent a real sense—the Minister has that look, but it is pretty difficult to make a controversy about allowing something to continue as it was. This is pretty uncontroversial, particularly as we are not even forcing them to do it; we are merely saying that this is a day on which it would be proper to do it. I doubt whether anyone will be prosecuted if they do not fly the flag on that day. The real issue is that they would be prosecuted if they were to fly a flag on a different day. So it would have been perfectly possible for the Government not to have brought this forward and, even now, they could decide that it is not worth having the argument.

The next important thing is that it is extremely likely that we will be flying the flag, because it is extremely likely that we will—happily—still be in the European Union when this occasion happens. So the Government have more than a year to think about this issue. It would be much better for them to say, “We understand; we think this ought to be decided by the whole community and, as a gesture towards the whole community, we will remove this because we do not think it is necessary”—and it is very hard to believe that it would be necessary. So why can we not be a bit generous?

That brings me to a point that I feel very strongly about. All over the island of Ireland there are memories of the lack of generosity of the British Parliament, and particularly of this House. We have a very sad history in the way in which we have treated people of all sorts in Ireland. We therefore have to be particularly careful about being generous about even the smallest things. I say to my noble friend that this is even more important for Conservatives, because our history is significantly worse. We have behaved appallingly on many occasions on this subject. We have a tiny opportunity just to say that we are not going to be pushed into this and will in fact withdraw it.

Lastly, perhaps the Minister will do this for me. He might just say to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that that bit of advice might have been thought through rather more carefully. If we are trying to reunite a divided nation, we need to remember the 48% as well as the 52%, particularly as that 48% may well now be nearly 60%. Let us just remember that. Let us remember, too, that there is a very much higher proportion among the young people in whose hands our future as a nation lies. In those circumstances, we are choosing not to celebrate peace in Europe but to put two fingers up to what has been, in both the Council of Europe and the European Union, the great achievement of the last 50 or 60 years—that we have no longer had the civil wars that were part and parcel of our history. We are saying simply and blithely, without any real consideration, that because we think we might be leaving the European Union we are going to do these petty, silly, stupid, tiny things, instead of trying to seize the opportunity to make a difference.

Why has DCMS not put out guidelines that in future we will fly the European flag on 5 May? It would not need legislation but it would require a generous and understanding heart. The fact that it has not done so shows the level to which we have now descended. We seem totally unable to understand what you do to bring communities together. We would do much better in the north of Ireland we did not make this particular regulation but left it and thought about how to discuss this with all the communities in the system that is laid down, and we would do much better in the rest of the United Kingdom if we recognised that a willingness to celebrate peace on our continent would be much better than a miserable little guideline like this.