Flags row rolls on amid major overhaul of local government in North

Eleven new ‘super’ councils to be created replacing the current 26

The Northern Assembly, which sits at Stormont, prepares to introduce major legislation to create 11 new “super” councils which will have additional powers.

The Northern Assembly, which sits at Stormont, prepares to introduce major legislation to create 11 new “super” councils which will have additional powers.

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 01:00

As the Northern Assembly prepares to introduce major legislation to create 11 new “super” councils, the row rumbled on yesterday on when and whether the British union flag should fly over local government buildings.

After elections on May 22nd, the North will witness a radical overhaul of its local government system, with the number of councils being reduced from 26 to 11 and the number of councillors dropping from 582 to 462. After the elections the new councils will operate in shadow form for a year with the current 26 councils. In April next year the 26 councils will be abolished.

Assembly members yesterday discussed the Local Government Bill which will provide the architecture for how the 11 new councils will work.

While the new councils will have additional powers, particularly in planning, a big focus has been on the issue of the union flag flying over council buildings. Belfast City Council’s decision in December 2012 to limit the days the flag flies at Belfast City Hall from all year around to 17 designated days each year continues to cause tensions.

Alliance environment spokeswoman Anna Lo has proposed an amendment to the Local Government Bill whereby the union flag would fly over all new council headquarters on designated days.

“The flying of the union flag on designated days is the compromise agreement that recognises Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, while acknowledging that we live in a shared society.”

Her proposal triggered opposition from both unionists and nationalists.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has already published proposals where the union flag would fly over the headquarters of 10 of the 11 councils on designated days, with the exception being Belfast where he wants the flag to again fly on 365 days.

The general position of Sinn Féin and the SDLP is one of “both flags or no flag”, as in the Tricolour flying alongside the union flag, or no flag being hoisted. The SDLP has also proposed the creation of a “civic” flag as a compromise.

Discussions were continuing last night ahead of expected votes today on the flag element of the legislation.

A probable outcome is that the 11 new councils will individually decide what flags policy to follow, which is likely to be dictated by whether they are unionist or nationalist majority councils, or whether parties such as Alliance hold the balance of power.