An Assembly attempt to set up a special task force to examine the future of the Union flag flying at Stormont has collapsed.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP called for an ad hoc committee to be formed with support from the Alliance Party.
But the DUP yesterday stymied the move by tabling a petition of concern requiring a majority on both sides of the House for a motion to pass.
Unionists and nationalists clashed bitterly as the controversy which has seen upheaval since before Christmas reached the floor of the Assembly. Speaker William Hay had to intervene several times and warn MLAs over their language as the DUP called the Good Friday Agreement a "redundant document" and Sinn Fein accused its main partners in Government of trying to dupe its supporters.
The debate followed the violence sparked by Belfast City Council's decision in December to fly the Union flag only on designated days. Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane said both the DUP and Ulster Unionists had failed to show leadership, with some members joining illegal roadblocks but who were "afraid" to debate the issue in the Assembly.
The DUP's Lord Morrow asked if both unionist parties were being accused of cowardice, then why had Sinn Fein and the SDLP boycotted meetings of the Assembly Commission.
Ms Ruane replied: "The place for discussion of flags, symbols and emblems is the chamber, not the Assembly Commission." She added the DUP's insistence it had not signed up to the Good Friday Agreement was "another pretence to its electorate".
But the DUP's Gregory Campbell argued the ad hoc committee would take the debate out of the Assembly chamber.
Ulster Unionist Leslie Cree said the Assembly should not make the same mistake as the city council but the number of designated days could not be allowed to continue to dwindle.
Stormont flies the Union flag on designated days – a policy which has been in place since power-sharing returned in 2007. After the Belfast City Hall flag row, the DUP, UUP and Alliance initiated an examination of the policy by the Assembly Commission, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of Stormont. A consultation is under way.
By Robert McNeil
Flags. Wouldn't the world be better without them? Well, they bring colour and identity, I suppose. And projectiles and fury. Flags have put Belfast in a flap and, yesterday at Stormont, somebody had the bright idea of establishing an ad hoc (Latin for 'pencil chewing') committee to examine the whole issue – including "emblems, symbols and language" – at Parliament Buildings.
It's how democracy works. If King Kong were to come blundering into Stormont, eating the lieges and smashing up the place, someone would say: "Quick, form a committee!"
But you've got to do something. Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Fein) put the idea to the debating chamber of horrors. She began with quotes from the Good Friday Agreement: "new beginning", "diversity", "blah", "respect", "yada", "understanding".
All good, eloquent flimflam. But she asked: "Does the reality match the words?" Implication: nope. She said there'd been a "hysterical" reaction to Belfast City Council's decision to limit the days City Hall would fly the flag.
But she averred: "This is 2013 not 1913." Caitriona summoned a big bad wolf: "Who's afraid of democracy?" Looking at the unionist benches, I thought: "Well, me for a start, if it's this scary."
And they weren't even all there, as it were. Of one lot, Ms Ruane asked: "Where are they? I see a lone voice in the chamber."
Seeing voices, eh? You used to get electro-convulsive therapy for that sort of thing. After complaining about "being interrupted rudely", she concluded: "The days of forcing one flag on everyone are well and truly over. Who's afraid of democracy? Sinn Fein isn't. Bring it on." Crikey, if I'd a white flag about my person, I'd have waved it furiously. Not so Gregory Campbell (DUP), who started off calmly but proceeded to lose it in the traditional manner.
First, he spoke dismissively of waving "redundant documents from 15 years ago". Then he bawled: "I don't know why people are so obsessed with what happened 15 years ago." That wasn't the only thing he didn't know. "I don't know why I'm regarded as hardline." Yes, bewildering, isn't it?
Leslie Cree (UUP) noted that, with the deaths of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, the number of designated flag days was down to 15. Yes, they never thought of that before they shuffled off, did they? Leslie noted that matters were now "heating up" and added: "Looks like a very interesting afternoon." Tell me about it. After the break, Pat Ramsay (SDLP), backing Caitriona's motion, said: "We are all here to lead." Oh, I see. He claimed the ad hoc group would allow the issue to be discussed in a calm environment. How we laughed.
Edwin Poots (DUP) pointed out that Ms Ruane was employed in the UK and took British sterling in payment. Well, a gal's gotta eat.
He added: "She brought forward legislation that had to be signed off by Her Majesty the Queen." Well, that sounds democratic, right enough. Democratic in the 10th century.
Rosaleen McCorley (Sinn Fein) said: "I suppose it has to be welcomed that we are here today." Well, I wouldn't go that far. She complained that the only thing in the Irish language at Stormont was a "welcome sheet". Well, bedding's a start.
Caitriona complained there'd been six attempted interventions while Rosaleen was speaking, all "by men". Oh yes, they're terrible, aren't they? Men.
Shortly afterwards she was complaining again, this time about "Mr Humphrey's abuse of an extra minute". This was a reference to the aforementioned Humphrey (William, DUP) making a fatuous intervention so that Nelson McCausland (DUP) could spend another 60 seconds on his pins. Nelson was keen to train his telescope on a misunderstanding: "Her Majesty the Queen is sovereign of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." Righty-oh. And he said there was recognition of Irish republicanism in the buildings: a plaque to a victim of the IRA. Raymond McCartney (Sinn Fein) was irked that someone should use a murder to make a "cheap and base point". He complained further that someone opposite was "speaking from a sedentary position". I think that means he was talking out his butt.
George Robinson (DUP) complained about the "emenies (sic) of Ulster". Yes, equolently put. Meanwhile, Chris Lyttle (Alliance) said his hopes for a constructive debate had been dashed by some unionists, who then proceeded to shout him down.
No-nonsense Dolores Kelly (SDLP) said the "boys in the playground opposite" were going to have to listen for once. They didn't, but she hollered back a quote from John Hume: "You can't eat flags." No, but you can get indigestion from them.