Henry Hill: A small red, white and blue victory for NI’s place in UK
When the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport issued an edict last month that the Union Flag should henceforth fly from Government buildings all year round – as opposed to roughly a score of ‘designated days’ – there was a problem: the move apparently excluded Northern Ireland.
The official government release included a note to editors, picked up by the press, to the effect that “there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings” in the Province.
This was taken by some papers, such as The Guardian, to mean that “the new regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland”.
Critics were swift to point out that once again, the Prime Minister’s efforts seemed only to have confirmed Ulster’s semi-detached status.
This obviously wasn’t good enough.
As I noted in this column a couple of weeks ago, and for the News Letter, such policies would only help to undermine unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement, especially when delivered on top of the ongoing problems caused by the Protocol.
As I put it for the paper: “Coming hot on the heels of the collapse of the Downing Street ‘Union Unit’, it highlights how difficult it will be to drive forward a strongly pro-Union policy agenda against the entrenched attitudes of Whitehall mandarins.
“Excluding Ulster once again from a visible expression of its British status smacks strongly of the Northern Irish Office and its institutional culture of exaggerated neutrality.”
Fortunately, for once it seems my pessimism was misplaced.
Sources in the Northern Ireland Office report that, having reviewed the legalities, Brandon Lewis has ordered that Stormont House, the Department’s headquarters in the Province, will fly the national flag all year round, bringing it into line with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport’s guidance.
The Secretary of State apparently takes the view that, as a UK-wide institution, UK Government buildings in Ulster should not be treated differently to those in other parts of the country.
This will doubtless set spluttering those commentators who view anything that irritates nationalists as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Belfast Agreement.
But it is an important, if small, step towards demonstrating that the Government is taking its commitment to Northern Ireland, and its place in the United Kingdom, seriously.
Lewis should follow it up by teaming up with the law officers to develop a long-overdue understanding of what the UK’s obligations under the Agreement actually are – rather than getting sold on fictitious obligations by Dublin, as Theresa May was.
– Henry Hill is news editor at the website ConservativeHome.com, which is “independent of the Conservative Party but supportive of it”; it is there that this article first appeared
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