Henry Hill: The new policy on flying the Union flag from public buildings should be revised to include Northern Ireland

The government’s decision to exclude Northern Ireland from its new policy of flying the Union flag from its buildings is a lamentable one that should be reversed.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 1:43 pm
Updated Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 3:22 pm
Boris Johnson yesterday flanked by Union flags in Downing Street’s new White House-style media briefing room. But if he wants to live up to his title as ‘Minister for the Union’ he needs to shake up Whitehall attitudes towards Northern Ireland

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.

But it also highlights a deeper problem, which is how London has repeatedly allowed itself to be talked into a corner on constitutional issues.

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Henry Hill is news editor of the website Conservativehome. He writes: "Excluding Ulster again from a visible expression of its British status smacks of the NIO and its culture of neutrality"

Time and again, ministers have been bounced into an interpretation of their ‘obligations under the Good Friday Agreement’ far in excess of anything the UK actually signed up to in 1998 — and this is starting to have a corrosive effect on its standing with unionists and loyalists.

Perhaps nothing better sums up the failure of this approach than one academic’s remark that the new flag policy highlighted Northern Ireland’s “ambiguous status” within the Union.

But of course, Northern Ireland’s status should not be at all ambiguous. The Belfast Agreement expressly recognises and guarantees that it is British, unless and until that status changes via a referendum.

You can understand why people forget this, though. Whilst the relatively short and well-defined list of protected North-South areas of cooperation have inflated into an apparent right to an invisible land border, Ulster’s right to participate in British life is continually compromised.

The imposition of the border in the Irish Sea is the most visible example of this. Whilst Boris Johnson must shoulder much of the blame for its final form, it was Theresa May who conceded the need for an invisible land border that made it necessary.

But that is just one manifestation of a wider mindset, which to me was best embodied by that absurd attempt to take the UK government to court for forming a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists.

If Northern Irish MPs joining a British government — their government, your government — had been ruled a breach of the agreement, it would not have been worth the paper it was printed on. Yet some people clearly thought it was!

As David Cameron once said, it’s time for change. If Johnson wants to live up to his title as ‘Minister for the Union’, he needs to shake up Whitehall attitudes towards Northern Ireland.

He has made a good start by charging Lord Frost with trying to deliver much-needed changes to the operation of the protocol. As I reported for ConservativeHome, the Brexiteer peer is convinced that the current arrangements are unsustainable.

But he should also mandate and empower Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state, to shake things up at the Northern Irish Office. Intervening with DCMS over the flags policy is the obvious place to start.

After all, we’re talking only of UK Government buildings, not those of the assembly, local councils, or other shared institutions. Surely if any sites are suitable for an expression of Ulster’s British status, it is they?

But Lewis shouldn’t stop there. Next year marks the centenary since the Order of Saint Patrick, the UK’s third most senior order of chivalry and the one dedicated to Ireland, fell into abeyance. Why should this be, when Northern Irish people continue to make outstanding contributions to the UK in the armed forces, sport, statecraft and more?

I previously suggested that David Trimble and John Hume would have been worthy inaugural recipients (the latter could of course have declined it, if he so wished). But there will be no shortage of suitable candidates.

Reviving the Order — and perhaps also Lloyd George’s plan for an Order of Saint David for Wales — would be a simple, low-cost gesture that would give the Government a chance to recognise such exceptional people whilst gently affirming Northern Ireland’s place in that quintessentially British institution, the honours system.

Obviously, such moves won’t heal the damage caused over the last few years on their own. But bridges are built one stone at a time — and it is past time unionists on both sides of the water got building.

Henry Hill is news editor of the website Conservativehome

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