Where do we go from here?

In today’s Belfast Telegraph, Robert McCartney, UKUP, asks the question that the Irish and British Governments are currently contemplating – “Where do we go from here?”. He has some radical ideas of his own, but, as he acknowledges, “It is not suggested that these proposals are any more than a possible, somewhat bare, framework and a tentative answer to the question“. Few though could argue with his starting position – “The answer [to that question] depends on who you are, where you wish to go and whether you travel courtesy of the democratic process or at gun point.“His suggested re-arrangement is this:

Northern Ireland should be divided into three administrative areas – The North and West, the South and West and the Greater Belfast area.

Each area would comprise six parliamentary constituencies and the 36 MLAs within them. Such an arrangement would avoid the long process required if a Boundary Commission was to draw new areas of local government.

The 36 MLAs would initially constitute the first council for each area. The next local government elections would be postponed and the existing 26 councils would continue to operate for a further two years to allow a smooth transfer of functions.

These functions would be supplemented by moving significant responsibility for a range of matters, including education, health, planning, environment, and, possibly, housing to the new area councils.

Policy would continue to be a matter for the NIO or any future devolved government.

Local identity would be preserved by the creation of 36 voluntary ‘parish’ councils or communes chaired by one of the area council MLAs. Referrals on local issues to the area council would be through the relevant MLA.

The provision of reserved powers to the Secretary of State or some future devolved executive would ensure that a minority community in any of the three areas received equality of treatment.

Similarly, central approval for any significant capital investment project might be a matter for consultation.

The proposals could give powers to the three administrative areas largely similar to those in Scotland and would drastically cut the cost of administration by reducing the number of councils and quangos.

Locally elected representatives would be both accessible and accountable.

The speed with which the new administrations could be put in place, coupled with the use and preservation of the elected MLAs and party infrastructure would answer some of the political problems of the present situation.

Parties would be enabled to maintain their support staff and constituency advice centres. Indeed, the Assembly as a political entity separate from any Executive might be retained in the meantime as a purely consultative body to whom the Secretary of State might refer matters affecting the whole of Northern Ireland.

The commitment of the existing MLAs for a period of, say, five years until new area council elections were held would provide an opportunity for all to work together on socio/economic issues for the benefit of the entire community without the political burden of dealing with constutional issues.

It is not suggested that these proposals are any more than a possible, somewhat bare, framework and a tentative answer to the question, ‘Where do we go from here?

There is a present feeling in the whole community that, in the wake of a patently failed process, what is required is a period of stable democratically accountable and accessible administration.

Such a breathing space would allow people to take stock of the new political landscape and permit the material and social benefits enjoyed in recent years by the middle and business classes to be extended to areas of disadvantage suffering from paramilitary exploitation.