Friday, November 11, 2005

All to play for in changes to council boundaries

Jude Collins:

By general agreement we’re over-governed: too many MLAs for a non-existent Assembly, too many district councillors for too many district councils. But while the British government isn’t going to start shouting for fewer MLAs at the same time as it’s trying to coax all parties back into the Assembly, it is gearing up to do something radical with local councils.

One thing we know: there’ll be fewer councils. The body charged with the review of public administration is looking at three options: reducing the present 26 councils to seven, 11 or 15. For each of these three options three possible models are on the table, which makes a total of nine possibilities.

What criteria are being used by the people doing the boundary calculations? Well, they say it’s important each council area contains roughly the same number of people; that the people who live in a given area also work there; and they talk about ‘co-terminosity’, which is, yes indeed, a sinfully-ugly word and refers to the need for council areas to match health and education boundaries. In contrast, the boundary planners are rather quiet on a central question that absorbs the rest of us: how many of the new councils will have a unionist majority and how many will be nationalist?

And no, please. PLEASE. Don’t start squawking ‘Sectarian head-count!’ Among mindless catch-calls, that ranks high. Experience – hard experience – has taught us that whether a council here is unionist-dominated or nationalist-dominated matters a great deal.

Consider Lisburn. There you have an example of not-an-inch unionism in all its splendour, with representatives of the largest nationalist party excluded from all posts of influence. Contrast that with nationalist-dominated Derry, where posts such as mayor rotate so that all major parties, including the DUP, get to share in the responsibility of local government.

Against that depressing backdrop, it’s clearly desirable from a nationalist point of view that the new dispensation land as few nationalists as possible in a unionist-controlled council area. So what are the prospects? It depends on what option and what model for change is selected.

If the review body and Peter Hain opt for 11 super-councils, the breakdown would be unionists seven councils, nationalists four. Under this arrangement, the present boundaries of Belfast City Council would remain untouched, which would probably mean a nationalist majority there within a decade. That’d change the balance to unionists six, nationalists five.

If Hain and Co opt for 15 super-councils, it’ll mean unionists nine, nationalists six with two of the models, and unionists eight, nationalists seven with the third model. Under two of these models Belfast Council boundaries would stay unchanged, leading to a nationalist majority in Belfast City Council within a decade. Which’d make the sums look rather different: eight councils nationalist, seven unionist. Eeeek.

And if our British master opts for seven super-councils, it’ll mean three nationalist councils, three unionist. The boundaries of the seventh – Belfast – would, in two of the seven-council models on offer, stay as they are. Which, inside a decade, would mean – that’s right – a nationalist-majority Belfast City council and a final score of nationalists four, unionists three. Eeek and double-eek.

However (no nodding off at the back, please), with the third of the seven-council models, Belfast’s boundaries would be changed to take in maybe Castlereagh, or Newtownabbey, or Lisburn. Result? You got it in one. Belfast would have a safely-unionist council for years and years and years.

Word is that the Brits are leaning heavily towards opting for seven super-councils. Word also is that the DUP have included changed Belfast Council boundaries on their wish-list to Tony Blair. That’s the least he could do, the DUP will argue, considering the one-way flow of concessions to nationalists since the Good Friday Agreement… And would the person who shouted ‘Articles 2 and 3!’ and the person who shouted ‘Principle of consent!’ please leave the hall now.

Clearly, then, the key council in the preferred seven-council model will be Belfast. Right-wing unionism in recent years has been outraged at the sight of nationalist and even (smelling salts, quick) republican politicians taking up residence in the mayor’s parlour, and it aches to turn back the clock in Belfast City Hall.

If Blair and Hain can be persuaded to include a good big unionist population bloc within Belfast’s new boundaries, there’ll be no further need to worry about a Sinn Féin mayor desecrating the cenotaph with his presence on Remembrance Sunday.

And the change would be so simple. Part of the reason Belfast within its present boundaries is on its way to becoming a nationalist city is because unionists, middle class as well as working class, didn’t like having taigs as next-door neighbours and moved to places like Lisburn and Newtownabbey.

How sweet for unionism if a small adjustment could bring the suburban exiles home again, and put nationalists back where they belong, on the fringes of a new Belfast City Council.

Belfast aside, there would be some advantages for nationalists in a seven-super-council model. With an even balance of three councils each, the growth of the nationalist electorate would be given a clear and undeniable manifestation. In addition, SDLP and Sinn Féin representatives would find seats on every council in the north, something currently absent in places like North Down and Carrickfergus. Barring as I say unionist conversion, there’d be no rotation of positions of power on these new unionist councils; but the nationalist electorate in such places would have the satisfaction of voting in council members who actually represented their views. After that, it’d be up to those councillors, by the clarity of their voices and the diligence of their efforts, to build on the base.

There are those like the SDLP’s Tommy Gallagher who argue that the seven-council model – if that’s what’s opted for, and leaks suggest it is – will ‘facilitate divisive and sectarian politics’.

Well Tommy old sausage, if you believe the unionist-nationalist division in this state is sectarian, maybe you should join the Alliance Party. On the other hand you may feel more comfortable where you are.

But if you’re saying that nationalists/republicans should have been more proactive about this whole council business, and pressed their own council plans more vigorously on the Brits rather than reacting to what Hain and Co have set in front of us, I’d agree.

There are, for example, models of revised councils that leave the great majority of nationalists governed by a nationalist-majority council – an important consideration, if, in the continued absence of an Assembly, the new councils were to be given enhanced powers. But these alternatives were not pressed on the British with sufficient energy and conviction.

The fact is, this is where we are now. And the question is, what are we going to do about it?

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