[Sinn Fein]

17 October 2000

Mandelson draft flag regulations -incompetent and politically motivated

Sinn Fein Equality Spokesperson, Newry & Armagh Assembly member Conor Murphy speaking in today's debate on the report of the Ad hoc committee on flags said:

``It is obvious that Peter Mandelson's draft regulations are a deliberate contradiction of those commitments given during the Good Friday negotiations.  But, playing fast and loose with British Government commitments is nothing new to the current Secretary of State.

``The Secretary of State's intervention on this issue, is an act of political expediency, designed to shore up the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party at the expense of all other participants in the process.

``Mr Mandelson s draft regulations not only fly in the face of the agreement, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, but they also contradict the fair employment s code of practice, as outlined by tribunal findings in 1995.  It stated that employees do not have to tolerate reminders or suggestions that particular religious beliefs, or political opinions have a special place in their work place.

The regulations as proposed, will in effect discriminate between employees who work in regional department offices and those who are based at departmental headquarters. The latter would be subjected to having to work in a building that displays the flag of the British State, regardless of their political opinions or affiliations, while the former will not.

In drafting these regulations, which are highly sensitive in terms of employment practice, the Secretary of State should have consulted the Equality Commission, the body set up to provide expertise and advice in these matters.  For reasons best known to himself, he did not.  Given the political sensitivity of this issue, the Secretary of State might have considered it sensible to consult with the Irish Government, if not, the political parties here before these regulations were drafted. Again I am aware of no such consultation.

``Mr Mandelson compounded that high-handed disregard, which has been a hallmark throughout his tenure in office here, by refusing to come and explain his thinking or lack of it to the committee. If the Secretary of State wishes to make a constructive intervention in this issue, then he should do so with proper regard to the Good Friday Agreement.

``The agreement clearly states that the six counties are in a unique constitutional framework.  The changes to the Southern constitution matched by legislation here extends executive authority across the entire island, and radically alters the constitutional position of this part of the island.  Within this context, the norm as applied to flying a flag through Government buildings in Britain is not appropriate to Northern Ireland.

``Therefore, wherever British cultural symbols are evoked in public life here, equivalent Irish cultural and political symbols should be given equal prominence.  If agreement or consensus cannot at present be found on this issue, then a reasonable alternative is to suspend flying the flag until such agreement or consensus can be found.

``I would also dispute the notion that these regulations could be tolerated for a year to facilitate further consultation. If the Secretary of State has shown such disregard for those who consider themselves Irish in the draft of these regulations, then how much regard is he likely to show in a years time?  Until agreement is reached on this issue, no flag should fly.

``The Secretary of State s draft regulations are an incompetent and politically motivated attempt to deal with a very complex issue.  He should be urged to go back and read the Good Friday Agreement, which with this new political dispensation, is about managing change and where custom and practice has disenfranchised people, it is about inclusivity. ENDS


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