Idea quickly rejected in favour of cutting the days Union Flag flown
The NIO examined the possibility of not flying the Union Flag at all on government buildings in Northern Ireland — or flying it alongside the Irish Tricolour, a declassified government document has revealed.
Both ideas were quickly rejected, and the government instead moved to restrict the flying of the Union Flag before devolution was restored — but only after quietly consulting David Trimble and Seamus Mallon.
A restricted October 30, 1998 memo from Doreen Brown in Stormont’s Central Secretariat has been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 year rule.
Mrs Brown advised Secretary of State Mo Mowlam to end the practice of flying the Union Flag on five existing days, but to consult Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon “for any better ideas”.
She said that flag-flying is not based on statute, with Northern Ireland taking its cue from days specified by Whitehall’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport on command from the Queen.
On top of those days, five local days had been added — New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Easter, the Twelfth of July and Christmas Day. That practice went back to decisions of Stormont in the early years of Northern Ireland, she said.
The civil servant told Dr Mowlam that “the flying of the Union Flag is a deeply divisive issue in Northern Ireland'' and so “for that reason…it would not appear wise to leave the matter entirely to the good sense of the devolved institutions.
“On the other hand, it is hard to see action by us achieving cross-party support — overt at least: the most we can hope for is probably ‘equality of objection’.”
Mrs Brown set out four options. The most radical involved not flying the British flag at all, or developing a new flag for Northern Ireland. She also suggested the possibility of flying both British and Irish flags.
However, she added: “Any of these possibilities is fraught with political problems, as they would be taken to represent a wholly new constitutional status…this option is not recommended.”
Another option considered was doing nothing, which she said would be “the most comfortable course” but “if we took it we could expect growing (though probably still limited) criticism from nationalists for failing the Agreement”.
The final two options involved not flying the flag on the five Northern Ireland-specific days without consulting the first and deputy first ministers, or doing so after asking them if they had any better ideas.
She said that civil servants favoured one of the final two options, with the latter their preference “but with a clear intention to deschedule unless both the First and Deputy First Ministers recommend an agreed alternative”.
She said that the 12th of July was “particularly delicate” and “will provoke some controversy”, but pointed to the decision of the then RUC chief constable to stop the practice of the police flying the flag on that day “without provoking a fierce reaction from unionists”.
She added that “if ministers accept the option recommended above, officials could also explore with the Army some reduction in their practices currently specified in Queen’s Regulations”.
Mrs Brown said that gun salutes at Stormont linked to five Royal occasions each year were also problematic and “it would be prudent to draw these to the attention of the First and Deputy First Ministers...officials are examining the scope for these gun salutes to take place at a venue other than Stormont”.