Although it was clear from the previous day that the entire debate was academic, MLAs yesterday spent several hours discussing the flying of flags from council buildings.
A joint Sinn Fein-SDLP petition of concern had effectively vetoed separate proposals by the Alliance Party and UUP which would have seen the Union Flag flown from the offices of the new “super councils”.
Yesterday’s debate came during lengthy scrutiny of the Local Government Bill, which also saw numerous amendments on everything from the form of power-sharing in the new councils to the level of rates for those moving from one council area to another.
But nothing led to quite so much debate as the issue of flags.
Last night, the SDLP Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, took the unusual step of releasing a statement through his party rather than through his department.
In it, he accused MLAs of having “let themselves and the public down by overshadowing an opportunity for historic reform of local government with a destructive debate on flags”.
He said that the biggest reform of local government in decades had been reduced to “a petty, negative exchange on flags”.
He added: “The purpose of this Bill is to bring power closer to the individual citizen. We have the opportunity to give councils an enhanced role to shape the communities they serve.
“However the greatest interest was sparked by a predictably destructive debate on flags.”
During the debate, the Speaker had to repeatedly admonish MLAs not to re-debate Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag on designated days.
DUP MLA Pam Cameron said the Alliance proposal for designated flag days “yet again demonstrates a complete lack of acceptance of unionism”.
Councils must record meetings
MLAs have voted to make the 11 new “super councils” record their meetings and make the audio available to the public.
The Alliance proposal was supported by every Assembly party except the DUP and passed by 62 votes to 34. It means that from next year, new councils will have to make audio recordings of public meetings available online. Alliance argued that it would increase transparency but the DUP likened it to “Big Brother”.