Seven Old Stormonts…?

Malachi O’Doherty expresses the fear that we are setting up seven bodies that will have singular majority bodies that actually pulls people back from the pluralism that many political liberals of all stripes believed the Belfast Agreement was supposed to underwrite. The sound file should be available after the programme.By Malachi O’Doherty

What I want to know, before we create the new councils, is whether or not we are likely to be creating seven old Stormonts, governed by majority rule and with entrenched minorities locked within them.

It would be a strange irony if, at such an advanced stage in a peace process, we were to lose sight of the original problem and, instead of reinforcing a solution, we actually replicated that problem in Protestant and Catholic cantons all over the place.

The problem with the old Stormont, overthrown in 1972, is that it allowed no prospect of the minority nationalists ever taking power.

If Northern Ireland is to be parcelled up into political units with fixed and predictable Protestant and Catholic majorities for decades to come, then what is to be done to prevent the same kind of disaffection arising among Protestants in Fermanagh or Catholics in County Down as tore Northern Ireland apart.

Oh, you could argue that minorities are inevitable everywhere and that everywhere else, at least in these islands, people learn to live with that. Conservatives are a permanent minority in Scotland and will never govern there. Muslims are a permanent minority in the UK overall and are unlikely ever to have even the balance of power at Westminster.

But Scotland and the UK overall are not being torn apart by these tensions for one very good reason and that is that they have several tiers of government functioning. Conservatives in Scotland may console themselves that their party may one day again be in government in London, making laws for Scotland – and Muslims in Bradford, while they may never be making national laws, are a strong presence in local councils.

Where is the consolation prize for the SDLP or Sinn Fein in County Down, for the DUP in Enniskillen? Will they be content that their parties are strong in Belfast, Ballymena or Derry? I hardly think so. The only credible consolation for them would be that their own local activists could aspire to another tier of government within which they could influence their own constituencies. That means that they will want – that they will have to have – an assembly at Stormont.
And what chance is there of that?

Well, minority nationalist areas in the east and minority unionist areas in the west will have the same incentive to restore the assembly or live instead overshadowed by their rivals. If the plan is to have these two strong tiers of government, seven large councils and an assembly, then its success depends on all the major parties wanting this plan to work.

If you believe that the reason we have not so far had an assembly functioning in a stable way is that, despite determined ambitions both Sinn Fein and the DUP have kept tripping over historic obstacles, and that they will both one-day surmount these obstacles with imagination and goodwill, then you may go ahead and construct a polity that depends for fairness on two tiers, strong local government and an assembly.

If, however, you believe, as I do, that the assembly has not worked because Unionists and Nationalists have treated the peace process as a field of battle on which they can perpetuate conflict between each other, then you have to ask if they are any less likely to treat the new structures of local government in the same way and consider the massive damage they could inflict on a divided society if they chose.

If these parties want ongoing sectarian competition then the restructuring of local government into a semblance of repartition, will equip both of them with many opportunities to humiliate each other.

First broadcast on Talk Back on BBC Radio Ulster

  • Keith M

    Nationalists in N.I., cannot have it both ways. If they don’t want direct rule and prefer a say in running their own affairs then they need to understand the consequences of voting for the provos. As Bertie Ahern has stated, SF/IRA are not a party which can be brought into government at the moment. They need time to rethink their loony left economic policies and a decontamination period to establish trust.

    Cantonisation by stealth is probably the best that Northern Ireland can hope for right now.

  • Fraggle

    Cantonization is, in my own opinion, the best for the north anyway.

    There is a myth that we can live happily ever after here but that’s just not the case. A new border is needed and cantonization is the best mechanism to bring this about.

    Keith, SF would lose a lot of voters if people though that there was a risk of their economic policies being realized. Also, I believe that if SF ever are in a position of economic power, their policies will be revised.

  • Adrian

    What if I said…Unionists in NI cannot have it both ways. Wanting to be part of the UK but gurning everytime the UK government did something which it has an absolute mandate to do?

    Or what about… Unionists in NI cannot have it both ways. Caliming the South is a foreign country and then demanding that we all follow its political prescriptions.

    Wakey, wakey, keith. In 1998 the parties and the people backed an agreement which made it pretty clear the Shiners would be in government. It was a price we had to pay because, unlike the South – which is a rational modern European democracy – the North is a midden.

    Anyway, not all Nationalists vote for the Shiners, any more than all Unionists vote for Ballymena ranter.

  • Aaron

    “Wanting to be part of the UK but gurning everytime the UK government did something which it has an absolute mandate to do? ”

    A mandate from whom, Adrian>

  • Fraggle

    Aaron, an absolute mandate from the unionist majority who are responsible for us being under the control of westminster.

    Their 55% (or thereabouts) of the vote results in 100% of the say in who controls us. They choose for us the be under the control of westminster so their complaints about what westminster does are amusing.

  • Brian Boru

    Considering that the 26 county republic has less than 30 councils, while the Six Counties has 26 district councils, the current state of affairs is clearly ridiculously inefficient and Hain is right to streamline the process. I would also point out that regarding the “Old Stormont” point, that this is not a good argument because all of the district councils have Nationalist or Unionist majorities anyway. Hopefully the redrawn districts will lay bare that 4 of the 6 counties are Nationalist and undermine support for the Union that way.

  • Adrian

    Aaron, from the United Kingdom Parliament. If you are part of the UK, then thems the breaks.

  • all of the district councils have Nationalist or Unionist majorities anyway

    Belfast?

  • J Kelly

    This notion that the redrawing of councils is going to lead to further sectarianisation of the north is total nonsense. Currently we have 26 local councils 13 are unionist dominated, 10 are nationalist dominated and 3 are balanced with neither having over all control or the balance of power being held by alliance or independents. So whats the diffeence with these 7 or 26 in regards control by either nationalist or unionist.

    The reason IMO that the SDLP are jumpimg up and down about ths is that they have vested interests in both maintaining their councillors and their apppointees on many quangos. The SDLP as a party rely quite a lot on councillors and if they lose many because of this they could be under pressure in areas to even exist.

    Everyone should judge this in regards to delivery of service not on self interest either personal or party.

  • Brian Boru

    “Belfast?”

    Well depends on whether you consider Alliance to be Unionist or not. I see them as the most liberal wing of Unionism. So I stand by what I said.

    I hope these councils will have the power to increase institutional ties with the South.

  • Brian Boru

    I also recommend that the Nationalist councils introduce on a widespread scale, bilingual street signs like in Derry. Even though there is partition, the bilingual street signs in Derry have a Republic of Ireland feel to them which I like. They have a nationalist mandate to do this.

    “The reason IMO that the SDLP are jumpimg up and down about ths is that they have vested interests in both maintaining their councillors and their apppointees on many quangos. The SDLP as a party rely quite a lot on councillors and if they lose many because of this they could be under pressure in areas to even exist. ”

    Yes. The proliferation of councils suited the SDLP as it meant they didn’t need as many people to vote for them to get elected. Oh well, life is hard! 🙂

  • idunnomeself

    I agree with J Kelly

    The Repartition stuff is a red herring. what it really means is ‘don’t touch my fifedom’

    but will the Armagh Council really be Nationalist dominated? Craigavon is very Unionist and there are plenty of Unionists in Banbridge and Armagh. Obviously Newry and Mourne is Very Nationalist.

    Surely the Nationalist majority will not be overwhelming? perhaps Nicolas Whyte could comment??

  • inaki O’Kelly

    The Armagh council is not as marginal as might seem at first glance. The overwhelming nationalist majority in Newry-South Down(80%)outweighs the much smaller unionist majority in Craigavon (55%) and Banbridge 67%.

  • irishman

    idunnomyself

    A quick visit by you to the NISRA site would reveal that this new council area would have a comfortable nationalist majority of more than 32,000, with the Newry/ Mourne council having the largest youth population in the area.

    It will be a nationalist-controlled council, be in no doubt.

  • Keith M

    Irishman “A quick visit by you to the NISRA site would reveal that this new council area would have a comfortable nationalist majority of more than 32,000, with the Newry/ Mourne council having the largest youth population in the area.”.

    When you combine the votes cast in the four councils (not three as Inaki O’Kelly suggests) you get the following headcount;
    Unionists : 53429
    Nationalists / Republicans : 60320
    Others (inc. Alliance) : 9356

    So much for a nationist majority, let alone 32,000.

    Armagh is shaping up to be another Belfast where “Others” hold the balance of power.

  • Keith M

    Brian Boru “I also recommend that the Nationalist councils introduce on a widespread scale, bilingual street signs like in Derry.”. Ah yes why just have the councillors just piss on the street corners to claim their territory, far more cost effective even if it might be a bit unhygenic.

    Over course it they World of tit for tat nonsense it would only be a matter of time before the road signs in Larne or Lurgan ended up in Ulster Scots.

    Seriously, the authorities in this country now recognise that bilingual signs are unnecesary and confusing. In Dublin almost all new signs are only in English while in the Gaelteachts they are tending to only use the Gaelic form.

  • Keith M

    Adrian “Aaron, from the United Kingdom Parliament. If you are part of the UK, then thems the breaks.” If there’s one lessons that the subsequent UK governments should have learnt from the Anglo-Irish Agreement it is that you cannot govern Northern Ireland with consulting the people of the province. Just like the referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales and the on the Belfast Agreement in N.I., ythere is recognition that in a federal state, the locals have the final say.

    As for “Caliming the South is a foreign country and then demanding that we all follow its political prescriptions.” I think you’ll find that a group which carries out murders, bank robberies and fails to support the police would be persona non grata when it comes to coalitions in almost all democratic countries.

  • Keith M

    Apologies for all the posts but they all concern very different things being debated on this thread.

    Brian Born “Considering that the 26 county republic has less than 30 councils…” Not true, the 26 “counties” as you call them are no longer used for local government and indeed haven’t been for decades. The old Dublin county now has 4 councils, Tipperary has had two since the 19th Century then you have to add the city councils / corporations. There are 34 top level councils in the Republic (as well as several UDCs).

    “Hopefully the redrawn districts will lay bare that 4 of the 6 counties are Nationalist and undermine support for the Union that way.” Not true (as you can see from my 7.49 post), but your support for full scale repartition is interesting.

  • Cahal

    Keith M, can I ask what your views on repartition of Ireland are as a ‘final solution’?

    Why do you think this optin has been effectively ignored bu all sides.

    Perhaps it will be the single issue we agree on….

  • Keith M

    Cahal, my ideal solution remains a federal republic of the British Isles within a federal Europe but I have to accept that that is a long way off.

    If you are looking at Northern Ireland alone (and I start from the position that you really shouldn’t do this), then I would prefer that a local asembly with an executive agreed by all is still the best longterm option.

    However if you are inclined (as some here obviously are) to believe that both communities can never come together for their mutual benefit, then re-partition is indeed the best option. Just as the original partition, it should be done to maximise the levels satisfaction as far as possible. Whether it should be done on the basis of the old six counties and a simple or qualified majority is a matter for debate.

    In the end I think that it’s far more realistic than believing that huge amounts of pro-union people will ever desire a “united Ireland” or that nationalists will be content to remain in the U.K. in perpetuity.

  • Conor

    Keith M,

    how the hell can bilingual street signs possibly be confusing? are you severly intellectually challenged? take Derry for example, the first sign is in english and below it the street name in Irish.

  • Keith M

    Conor, I know you don’t get as many tourists in that side of the World but have some consideration!

    Road and street signs should be as clear as posssible and contain as little text as necessary to help mororists. In a country that is genuinely bi-lingual there may be a case for bi-lingual or duplicate signing (these are very helpful in Moscow) but exactly how many people in (London)Derry do not understand English?

  • Robert Keogh

    The super-councils are far more insidious than simple “re-partition”. In the absence of a running executive these units become the top tier of effective government in the six counties and watch how they use that power.

    Nationalist controlled councils along the border will work more and more with their counterparts in the 26 counties, in doing so the border will melt away. In the same fashion as the Free State transitioned to the Republic everything of substance will change so that when the time comes to remove the border all that will be required is the official/ceremonial declaration.

    I say insidious because simple re-partition would have secured 2 or 3 counties for unionism in perpetuity. Whereas in this setup unionist councils are umbilically entwined with the nationalist ones and will get sucked into re-unification.

    The re-unification letter has been in the post for several years, eventually unionism will realise it. Until they do I’ve pulled up my arm chair and I’m richly enjoying their twisting and turning every which way to avoid that reality. I’m generally not a fan of schadenfraude but I’m happy to make an exception for unionism. For the simple reason that the longer unionism fails to realise reailty the sooner re-unification will occur.

    Frued had a great term for unionisms current mindset – Neurotic Misery.

  • Keith M

    Robert “so that when the time comes to remove the border all that will be required is the official/ceremonial declaration.”. It’s amazing how if you take away two litttle letters you get to where I believe we may be in 30 to 40 years time. I would say “so that when the time comes to move the border all that will be required is the official/ceremonial declaration.”.

    I have belived for a long time that options within the Belfast Agreement for finding a solution that would appeal to the majority in both communities were getting harder to find. A consociational agreement cannot work with mutual trust and this is still lacking in Northern Ireland. For me, today is the first step in “Plan B”, and the movement of Coleraine into Antrim simply confirms this.

  • inaki O’Kelly

    Keith, I didn’t mention armagh disctrict council in my post about the political balance of the new armagh-south down council because it’s population is perfectly split 50-50.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Keith/Inaki Kelly

    “Keith, I didn’t mention armagh disctrict council in my post about the political balance of the new armagh-south down council because it’s population is perfectly split 50-50.”

    I can vouch for this. I had reason to look into the 2001 census figures a few years back and, if I remember rightly, Armagh district council had a population of 56,000, in which there were 14 more Protestants than Catholics. There was a thousand or so Others as well. The Protestant majority was down from a few hundred in 1991, so by now it’s probably narrowed even further, or even been reversed. The council has been split 50/50 for the last several elections.

    Either way, if you’re having a sectarian headcount it’d be fair enough to conclude that in Armagh it’s a dead heat, so statistics for the other three councils would hold true for all four.

  • Keith M

    Inaki, that’s where you made a mistake, the council maybe split 50/50 but Armagh is the electorate is 52/44 unionist/nationalist. This may well be enough to deny a nationalist majority on the new council.

  • Keith M

    Billy, be wary of sectarian headcounts;
    in 1997 the combined SDLP-SF/IRA vote share in the Armagh Council election was 45.4% in 2005 it was 44.3% so any talk of the unionist majority being reversed is clearly nonsense.

  • irishman

    Keith

    The figure 32,000 quoted relates to the census figures for 2001- not the electorate. What it does clearly indicate is that, even if the council initially appears deadlocked, it will in a very short period of time end up a nationalist-controlled council.

    But you are permitted to continue living in hope……

  • Keith M

    irishman I come from the old school that says that if you want to find out about people’s political affiliations you actually check the way they vote at the ballot box rather than doing a sectarian headcount based on census results. I know democracy is new to many in Northern Ireland, but I think that sometimes you’ll find that old ways are best.

  • Henry94

    I’m certain that power-sharing will be the norm in nationalist majority councils. I hope it will also be the norm where unionists have a majority

  • Scotsman

    I have to laugh when I hear talk of “super-councils.” Sluggerites are obsessing about the symbolism of these larger councils, but they are neither particularly big nor particularly powerful.

    I live in Fife, Scotland, with its population of 350,000 and an area of 1300 sq. km. In other words, broadly similar to your new super-councils.

    Fife runs its own Education, Libraries, Social Work, Roads etc, etc.

    In many ways its budgets are effectively set by the Scottish Executive as it cannot vary its business rates and its council tax (Average ÂŁ1500 a year including water charges) only covers a quarter of its budget of ÂŁ660 million.

    So it is far from being a super-council, in size or powers.

    But still somewhat more so than the NI councils everyone is so excited about.

  • Keith M

    Henry 94 “I’m certain that power-sharing will be the norm in nationalist majority councils.” Can you please tell us your definition of “power sharing”? Is it the kind of tokenist nonsense that goes on in nationalist controlled councils at the moment, or are we talking about the real thing (i.e. nothing introduced without the consent of the minority).

  • George

    The councils aren’t to blame for the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland and there is no way you can structure it so that people forget their prejudices.

    This is from today’s Irish Independent:

    “Thus the Down area, mainly nationalist, but with a record of sharing power and office among parties, with Gaelic games as the predominant sport, is to be lumped in with DUP-controlled Castlereagh, where majority rule means just that, where the Union flag is ordered to fly on all council property, where Gaelic games are not provided for, and where planning objection has been taken to every application for a Gaelic field or a Catholic church.”

    What is needed are checks and balances to prevent this happening so the councils can get on with what they are supposed to do, provide services not further sectarian political agendas.

    Keithm,
    Firstly, I would say there has never been a complaint from a tourist about confusing bilingual signs, about dual measurement (km and miles) maybe, but not about dual language.

    Why would an English speaker be able to read a bilingual sign in Moscow without a problem and find them helpful but not in Ireland? It’s you who has the problem with Irish not the foreigners.

    “In Dublin almost all new signs are only in English while in the Gaelteachts they are tending to only use the Gaelic form.”

    That is simply not true unless you consider BĂ©arlachas English. Care to back that one up? Have Dublin’s local authorities decided on a policy change and forget to tell anyone?

    “I come from the old school that says that if you want to find out about people’s political affiliations you actually check the way they vote at the ballot box”

    Well considering you want a federal “British Isles” and people with your view currently have 0 out of 166 seats and two thirds of the Dail have to vote for such a constitutional amendment before a referendum can take place I fear you are being very hopeful. In fact, pie in the sky would be a more accurate description.

    There is more chance of us joining the United States, if the truth be told.

  • Brian Boru

    As I understand it, the overall vote share last time in the relevant area was 49% for the Nationalists, 42% for the Unionists, and the rest for the Alliance or Independents. Given demographics it should probably go green.

  • George

    By the way Keith,
    Fine Gael tackled Dublin Fingal on this issue of some signs appearing in Rolestown and Tyrrelstown which will now be removed and replaced with bilingual ones.

  • idunnomeself

    ‘given demographics’?

    so you’re ignoring all the houses being built along the motorway that people from (predominantly Unionist) Belfast are moving into?

    Or are you taking refuge in that old chestnut: ‘OK, well there might be more of them’uns now but we breed faster’?

    The independents have very Scots looking surnames..

    Basically things like turnouts, tribal rallying (will the centre hold?) and ward sizes will decide it, if the Boundary commission doesn’t- The Banana Council would make more sense if the Co Down part of Lisburn transferred into the Down or Armagh Council, and the Hilltown/ Kilkeel areas might rather be in Down (as long as Newcastle is in Down).

    Anyway the minority will be so large that there will have to be power sharing because not all councillors make it every month and if there are only a few seats in it they’ll have to work together to get things passed.

    Keith/ George
    Surely it’s a legal requirement that all signs in the ROI have to be in Irish? Developers who ignored this have been taken to court?

    These new councils will be very challenging to Newry/Mourne and Down’s Irish language policies.

  • Henry94

    KiethM

    I would have no problem with dual consent being applied to the councils on a legal basis. Until then I think the DUP who you support could do the world a power of good by matching the measures taken already by nationalist councils. After all if it is only “tokenist” it shouldn’t hurt too much.

  • George

    Idunnomyself,
    official road signs have to be bilingual (or Irish in Gaeltacht areas).

    But I don’t know if there is any law requiring developers to put streets signs in both languages.