Trouble looming for super councils if flag issue is not settled, MLAs told
The first item on the agenda of Northern Ireland's new super councils would be dealing with the incendiary issue of flying the Union flag on town halls across Northern Ireland, the Assembly has been warned.
Alliance's Anna Lo (below), chair of the committee overseeing local government reform, forecast "trouble ahead" if the 11 amalgamated new authorities are left to their own devices over flags.
Ms Lo, whose party backs a policy of only displaying the Union flag on designated days, said she hoped the issue would be resolved in the multi-party negotiations being chaired by Richard Haass.
But she added: "Without placing this on a statutory footing, I am sure if we could all predict the first agenda item on many of the new councils we would see trouble ahead.
"I believe that this is too divisive an issue to be taken on by each council on its own on 11 separate occasions. It is up to us in this chamber to show some real leadership."
Sinn Fein also said it would support statutory regulation to prevent a repeat of the months of loyalist rioting and protests after Belfast City Council's decision to limit the flying of the flag.
The claims came as the Assembly finally began dealing with the legislation which will underpin the mergers of the current 26 councils into 11, following elections expected on May 22 next year.
But the transition committees implementing the reforms have already encountered difficulties and internal rows.
MLAs said non-unionists were not being given a fair share of posts on councils, including Lisburn and Castlereagh, which are to be amalgamated, Newtownards, and Craigavon, while unionists are losing out in Londonderry, Strabane, Newry and Down.
The SDLP's Dolores Kelly said the transition committees had lost the ethos of partnership and power-sharing in recent months. Environment Minister Mark H Durkan is on a collision course with some councils after writing to ask them to rerun their nomination procedures for the transition committees.
Introducing the Bill, Mr Durkan said he would ensure sharing power and responsibility "is the cornerstone of the new councils".
"Recent experience in the formation of some statutory transition committees highlighted and reinforced the absolute need for these new arrangements," he said.
A new political partnership panel linking Stormont to each of the 11 new councils is to be set up to hammer out issues and there will be a mandatory code of conduct for councillors.
The reorganisation – first mooted more than a decade ago – involves the transfer of staff, assets and liabilities from the existing councils, which will continue to operate for a year following next year's elections.
Northern Ireland's 11 new councils:
* Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
* Causeway Coast and Glens (made up of Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady and Moyle)
* Derry/ Strabane
* Mid/East Antrim (made up of Ballymena, Larne and Newtownabbey)
* Mid Ulster (made up of Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt)
* Newry, Mourne and Down
* North Down/Ards