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

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty