Call for public ownership of lough
The Assembly has agreed to consider whether the vast waterway of Lough Neagh should be brought into public ownership.
A Sinn Fein motion won cross-party support to explore the option of taking responsibility for the lough which is currently owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury. The Ulster Unionist Party objected to the proposal, sparking accusations from the SDLP that it was "stuck in landed gentry mode".
The Assembly heard complaints that the lough was suffering ecological damage, while its commercial and tourism potential have not been exploited.
The proposal to establish a working group involving relevant Stormont departments secured DUP support, but while some Democratic Unionists raised reservations, the party's Jim Wells said it made ecological and commercial sense.
"If we allow the present situation to continue the ecological quality and the tourist potential of Lough Neagh, and the economic benefits that would accrue to this society from having it, will continue to decline," said Mr Wells.
Sinn Fein was accused of seeking to ally the proposal to a republican political agenda, but Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill echoed Mr Wells' concerns that the involvement of a plethora of commercial enterprises around the lough was at odds with the duty of protecting and sustaining the waterway.
A series of speakers said the lough could be purchased for development as a new 'signature' tourism project, along the lines of the Titanic and Giant's Causeway initiatives.
The SDLP's Dolores Kelly, who said she grew up beside the lough, detailed its heritage and the waterway's potential. She agreed with Mr Wells' concern for the area's ecological decline and backed calls to take the lough into public ownership.
Jo Anne Dobson was among Ulster Unionist speakers who opposed the proposal and said: "I would much rather see the departments of environment, agriculture and culture, arts and leisure, throwing their weight behind a permanent management body which would be responsible for the day to day operation of the lough."
But Mr Wells told her: "The reality is that that management hasn't worked. During the last decade there has been a fundamental decline in the ecological quality of Lough Neagh, in terms of fishing stock, in terms of its wildlife, and the planning around Lough Neagh, has been an utter shambles."