National Flag

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 17th January 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 4:00 pm, 17th January 2000

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.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice 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.

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.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 4:15 pm, 17th January 2000

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.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

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."

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

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.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

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 —

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party


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.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

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.

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.

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd NIUP 4:30 pm, 17th January 2000

I rise to support the motion put forward by the DUP’s two North Antrim Assembly Members, Dr Paisley and Mr Paisley Jnr. It is scandalous that the Sinn Féin/IRA Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety refused to allow the Union flag to be flown over Castle Buildings on Christmas Day. I have a list here of days that the Union flag must be flown on Government buildings under well-established practice, and 25 December is one such date. There was no need for the matter to be discussed.

The Sinn Féin Health Minister’s actions were deliberately provocative and appalling. This was an attack on Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

The Minister acted outside her authority and must be utterly condemned in this House. She has insulted the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. At a time of deep crisis for the National Health Service the Sinn Féin Health Minister was more interested in cheap, political stunts than in the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland. Why, for example, did she not investigate and publicly condemn, during the same period, the intimidation by a Republican mob of two health workers for attending a police liaison committee in Carrickmore? We were told that the Minister had no comment to make.

For a Minister of this fundamentally flawed Executive to refuse to allow our country’s flag to be flown is disgraceful and an insult to the people of Northern Ireland. It just shows that the Belfast Agreement offers nothing for Unionists, despite David Trimble’s and the UUP’s utterances that it copperfastens the Union. If preventing the flying of the flag on Castle Buildings, a Government building, is copperfastening the Union, I wonder what the UUP would think was weakening the Union.

The SDLP’s amendment 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? We hear about the Union flags and the red, white and blue kerbstones. What about Garvaghy Road, where we see tricolors, and green, white and gold kerbstones? Will the UUP clarify whether if, under the Belfast Agreement, Nationalists object to the Union flag, it can no longer be flown on Government buildings? That is what the SDLP is telling us today.

The Union flag is flown permanently at Westminster — except when the Queen is present and the Royal Standard is flown — and it is flown permanently on the building of the Welsh Assembly. It is also flown on occasion on the Scottish Parliament Buildings and Government offices. The Union flag, and only the Union flag, should be flown permanently on Parliament Buildings, Stormont and on all Government buildings to bring us in line with what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is scandalous that a Northern Ireland Office spokesman should say that this is a matter for the parties to sort out and agree among themselves. That attitude is totally unacceptable, and I am calling for a full investigation by the House into the comments made by that faceless civil servant, who must be brought to task for them. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom — this has been demonstrated in election after election — yet our British culture and identity continue to be attacked. The list is endless — parades, the oath of allegiance, the RUC and portraits of Her Majesty. Just today the Duchess of Abercorn was blocked from visiting St Mary’s Primary School in Pomeroy, County Tyrone, by Sinn Féin/IRA, and that visit was to promote a cross-community writing competition.

Sinn Féin/IRA wants to destroy our British culture and identity. However, in spite of ongoing attacks by the pan-Nationalist front on that British culture and identity — and that includes utterances by Sinn Féin/IRA’s Gerry Adams about a united Ireland by the year 2016 — there are still enough Unionists in Northern Ireland to ensure that we will always be living under the Union flag, and the Union flag only.

I support the motion.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Undoubtedly there is confusion, on both sides, about the purpose of the national flag. There has been much talk about culture and cultural differences. The flag of the United Kingdom is being used as a political weapon. Coming from Ms Gildernew, this view is amusing, since the Irish language and culture have been used as bludgeons by Sinn Féin, and to a lesser degree by the SDLP, to further the Nationalist aspiration for a united Ireland. This is understandable in a political party, but the purpose of a national flag is political rather than cultural. The flag of the United States, the Stars and Stripes, covers a multitude of different cultures and ethnic groups, but it signifies the overall and over-arching the national identity of the United States, as does the national flag in Northern Ireland.

The First Minister has correctly pointed out that if parties here accept the Belfast Agreement, and if, as is repeatedly stated, the Belfast Agreement is founded upon the principle of consent, that principle of consent says that Northern Ireland will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom until such times as the majority should decide otherwise. Therefore, since Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom, the flag which represents it is the Union flag, and therefore it is appropriate that that flag be flown on all state occasions.

The First Minister has outlined in some detail the circumstances in which the flag should be flown under those conditions. I, for one, object to flags, language and culture being used as weapons in political battles and against what Robert Graves once described as "the jelly belly flag flappers", who encouraged young people to enlist in armies, including the British Army. I object to a lot of the facets of nationalism, some of which have destroyed the true meaning of the Olympic Games and turned them into some sort of nationalist competition.

Flags should be reserved for their purpose: to represent the current political status of the territory governed and forming part of an integral, sovereign state. That is the purpose of a state flag, and that is what we should use it for. If, as Mr Adams suggests, there is a united Ireland in 16 years’ time, will the tricolour be quartered or even halved to include part of the Union flag as a gesture towards the tradition in Northern Ireland? This would not be tolerated because Northern Ireland, if such should come about, would be an integral part of a united Irish Republic, whose flag is the tricolour.

Until such times occur we should adhere to the fundamental political principle that a flag is the symbol of the state as constituted at the time it is flown. If both the SDLP and Sinn Féin accept the principle of consent, they must accept the natural and usual conditions that are attached to that. This issue is perhaps relatively peripheral given the social, health and other problems that we should be dealing with.

It is sad that the Minister of Health should have utilised her functions to denigrate the principle of consent and to give rise to the sort of divisions which this body is supposed to be in the process of healing.

I support the motion.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

I have listened with some interest to the debate. The fact that the flag was not flown at Christmas was most negative and, indeed, the greatest denial of our Christian traditions that could possibly have occurred. The Union flag is the ensign of the United Kingdom; it incorporates St Patrick’s flag — the central cross that represents the saint who brought Christianity to this part of the world — the flag of St Andrew, who is associated with Scotland, and the flag of St George, who is associated with England. After the birth of Christ the three saints followed, and the most negative thing that could happen — and I heard a Member use that word "negative" about my party — was that we would deny the birth of our Lord by not acknowledging His birthday.

The First Minister talked about a royal command. He said that this was our sovereign flag, our legitimate flag. That is obvious, and it is taken for granted by those who have any regard for constitutional law. But what did the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and a Minister in the Executive do? They denied the very agreement that they had agreed to by refusing to honour the command of the sovereign — they disobeyed that command. That was not just negative; it was an insult to the very thing that they had agreed to.

People who use the word "negative" to condemn others should be very careful. There has been a clamour of late, as part of the recent Mitchell agreement, for certain people to be allowed to get into the Palace of Westminster where the Union flag flies constantly. Will they disagree with the flying of the flag there? They used every lever and got the consent of the First Minister to get into the Palace of Westminster. That was part of the Mitchell agreement. Sinn Féin/IRA’s reward was to get into Westminster where the Union flag flies constantly. The negativity, the condemnations and the rejections are not from this part of the House; the rejections are from those in the House who say that they are for the agreement. They are the people who have disobeyed; they are the people who have disregarded the sovereign’s command.

If these people are so loyal they should obey the commands of the Queen. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had a command, a responsibility to respect the sovereignty of the country in which they operate. But what did they do? They abandoned their responsibility, and they work in the same building as the Minister who made the original decision. They abandoned their responsibility and left a secretary to carry the can. That was not just negativity or condemnation; it was abandonment of responsibility.

Is this how the Executive is going to run, with intolerance, bigotry and, above all, a great lack of responsibility.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 17th January 2000

A book entitled ‘Lost Lives’ was referred to earlier. I have it with me because I wish to use it. The first three names in it are John Scullion, Peter Ward and Matilda Gould. Those were the first three people to die in what are known as the present troubles. Older Members will know the circumstances. There was a row about a flag in Divis Street, and a certain Mr Paisley felt offended. It caused embarrassment to the Unionist Government of the day, who sent in the police, and now, 30 years later, we have a book this thick.

The same old arguments are continuing today — it is a case of déjà vu. We have been here before —obsessed with flags, forgetting and learning nothing. No one can deny that flags have played a major role in this senseless war waged against ordinary people for no good. I hope that the final chapter in this book has been written and that the number of 3,630 is indeed the final number. I hope that the Assembly will start to behave sensibly and work for the people who depend on it, rather than waste time in this senseless argument about flags.

Is it too much to expect that the same mistakes are not repeated? I do not need to tell the House that a divided community that is recovering slowly from the divisions of the past is the perfect place in which to exploit flags and create fear and suspicion. It does not matter whether those flags are on Government buildings, nailed to telegraph poles or painted on kerbstones. They serve only one purpose — to further sectarianism and polarisation. They cannot unite people. Indeed, it was certainly not the intention of the Paisley faction to unite people. Its intention was to cause embarrassment to Ulster Unionists.

The motion is not about respecting the Union flag. If it were, that would have happened a long time ago, and then, perhaps, history might have been different. Perhaps this book would never have been written. As we know from the contributions, this is not about furthering working relationships between the different political traditions in the Assembly. Some things never change, but I am sure that there is a difference. Today people have the experience of knowing what is in this book. They know what happens when politicians exploit people. They can read the book and know what happened to ordinary, decent families who were exploited, used for political ends by politicians who were not prepared to face reality and sit down and work with people from other traditions rather than exploit the differences.

I accept that flags are important to some people, but once they are used for the express purpose of imposing their significance on others with quite different views, they cease to serve any healthy purpose, and they certainly cease to command respect. That is true irrespective of what flag we are talking about; I do not confine it to just one.

Government buildings should be neutral venues for all people to turn to for whatever services are on offer to the public. That is their purpose; they should not become places for rows about flags. Perhaps at some time in the future we can discuss the issue of flags and emblems and agree on symbols that reflect a community that is not divided but united and determined to put the horrors of the past behind it.

For God’s sake, give us a chance to map out a new future that is not based on notional territorial claims but on unity between all the people. Then, and only then, can we seriously discuss the flying of flags. I am sure it is everyone’s hope that the last chapter of ‘Lost Lives’ has been written, that lessons have been learned and that everyone will give a commitment that neither by word nor deed will anything be done to jeopardise the peace process that we are currently enjoying.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

This is a big issue about which I feel very strongly. As an Ulster Unionist, I feel as strongly as Mr Paisley about the Union flag. I served in Her Majesty’s forces. Did he?

I raised the flag issue at Christmas, when it was established that the Union flag was not flown on some Government buildings. Such action by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is most offensive and an attempt to deny the jurisdiction of Her Majesty in this part of her realm.

I contend that Ministers in the Assembly are acting on behalf of Her Majesty, yet here we have a Minister — maybe Ministers — failing to accept their responsibility. There are obvious double standards. Whom are they attempting to deceive — their own supporters, or the pro-British people? This action by the Minister was blatant hypocrisy and crass political deceit — a denial of what she agreed to in the Good Friday Agreement.

Let me refer to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to emphasise these points. Section 1(1) states

"It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1."

I emphasise that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom, not just a piece of it here and a piece of it there.

Section 23(1) says

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

Subsection (2) states

"As respects transferred matters, the prerogative and other executive powers of Her Majesty in relation to Northern Ireland shall ... be exercisable on Her Majesty’s behalf by any Minister or Northern Ireland department."

Section 5(2) says

"A Bill shall become an Act when it has been passed by the Assembly and has received Royal Assent."

Her Majesty’s sovereignty prevails under the agreement; we cannot deny that. Mr Alban Maginness referred to a "neutral symbol", but this is about the sovereignty of this state. It is not offensive, nor is it meant to be. There can be only one sovereignty in a state.

I repeat that this action by the Minister is most offensive, and it is not in keeping with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It is an attack on the sovereignty of Her Majesty in this part of her jurisdiction. I want the Union flag to be flown only on designated days or when the Assembly is sitting, and that is something that we will have to think about. I want the Union flag to be flown with dignity and with responsibility — not as a taunt to anyone but with great respect for what it stands for. The flag is the embodiment not of sentiment alone but of history. It should be given the respectful place to which it is entitled in this jurisdiction.

The jurisdiction issue was determined in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by the majority in the Province and the vast majority of the people of the Republic of Ireland.

Sinn Féin must realise that it is not joint sovereignty which is expected or required, it is real citizenship. Its members must learn what they signed up to and what they must accept under the terms of the agreement. Their recent actions and words suggest that they are out to wreck the co-operation required to benefit all the people of Northern Ireland. Such offensive action by Ms de Brún is very devious, subtle and totally reprehensible. The Union flag should have been flown, as has been the practice and the correct procedure over the years.

I reject the Minister’s action and express concern. Under the terms of the agreement the flying of the Union flag and the sovereignty of the Queen have to be acknowledged. Ms de Brún has failed to acknowledge that in this instance, and I contend that she exceeded her authority. We cannot move the agreement’s goalposts, one which is the principle of consent. I support the motion.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

In many ways this has been a useful debate, in spite of the negativity of Mr Paisley and his party.

The debate has been useful in that it addressed the issue of flags and emblems, but this is an issue which will not be concluded today. It will continue to trouble us unless it is addressed imaginatively and creatively under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Flags and emblems should promote harmony and mutual respect in our society, not division. That is the fundamental approach that we should all take when addressing this issue. The debate has been constructive, but the argument will continue. We must work patiently, diligently and harmoniously to try to resolve the issue.

Far from being vague, as Ms Gildernew has said, the amendment is quite precise. It places the issue where it should be — at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. If we address this issue in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement we can ultimately resolve it. I accept that these are difficult and deeply emotive issues, and I understand the fears and worries, particularly of Unionists. But one must also realise that those fears and worries are shared by people in the Nationalist community. It is up to us, as democratic politicians attempting to create an inclusive democracy, to try to reach an amicable compromise.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I call Mr Ian Paisley Jnr and advise the House that I shall put the Question on the hour.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

I have listened with interest to all the contributions. Mr Alban Maginness failed to explain how Sinn Féin is not in breach of the Belfast Agreement. I am surprised that the bare-chested defenders of the Belfast Agreement have not been kicking up a stink about the way in which Sinn Féin has polluted it. The SDLP has run away from Sinn Féin on this issue. The issue remains contentious because the SDLP will not deal with it in Nationalist areas.

The First Minister, in his usual red-faced and bombastic way, attacked the messenger and not the message. He said that this is not the proper place in which to debate this issue. If he has striven so hard to create the Assembly, where is the proper place to have this debate, and when will be the proper time? The First Minister does not want to have this debate, for it embarrasses him. He ought to face that reality. The Ulster Unionists have failed to accept the legitimacy of this issue and to attack Sinn Féin on it both inside and outside the Cabinet.

I remind Mr Sam Foster that the national flag is not the exclusive property of members, serving and past, of Her Majesty’s Forces — it is the flag of all of the people in the United Kingdom. Mr Dallat’s trite and irresponsible comments were nothing short of codswallop. He was trying to justify that two wrongs as making a right. But two wrongs do not make a right.

I was handed a written response to a question that I put to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I asked her to condemn the IRA violence that has resulted in the hospitalisation of people in Northern Ireland, but she refused. Should she not be concentrating on condemning violence and dealing with its effects, instead of running around tearing down the country’s national flag? I regret her approach.

Question put

The Assembly divided: Ayes 24; Noes 63.


Alex Attwood, Eileen Bell, P J Bradley, Seamus Close, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, John Fee, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Kieran McCarthy, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Eddie McGrady, Eugene McMenamin, Monica McWilliams, Sean Neeson, Danny O’Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.


Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Bairbre de Brún, Nigel Dodds, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Alex Maskey, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, William McCrea, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Maurice Morrow, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dermot Nesbitt, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Sue Ramsey, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly proceeded to a Division.


Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 5:15 pm, 17th January 2000

Order. A Member has obviously left his phone unattended. Phones are not to be left switched on in the Chamber.

The Assembly having divided:


Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, John Gorman, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Dermot Nesbitt, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Jim Wilson, Sammy Wilson.


Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, John Dallat, Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.

Question accordingly agreed to.


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.