Is Gerry Mander Alive and Well?

As some of you may know I am not a big fan of the proposals for the new Super Councils, previously I have posted on the financial white elephant  , trying to explain (not very successfully it seems) that the proposals will COST us money for the foreseeable future.  At the end I promised to give some of the social implications, thankfully others in the form of our MLAs have put it much better than myself.

The recent Assembly Debate on the issue was a rare example of a proper structured discussion, although the outcome went in favour of the proposals ( DUP, AP & SF for, UUP & SDLP against ) most commentators believe the case for looking again at the proposals was well made.  I have singled out one contributor from the Belfast perspective, although the proposals are equally crazy elsewhere, enough of my waffle, here are the words of Micheal Copeland UUP MLA for East Belfast.

“I was born into a house called Tigh Deargh — “red house on the hill” in the Scottish Gallic language — at a place called Carnamuck on the Ballygowan Road in Castlereagh. My address, for all my life, was Lead Hill, Castlereagh, 50 yards from the city boundary of Belfast. That is the local identity that I had for my rates and the council that I eventually served and continue to serve on — local. My grandmother was slightly stranger. She referred to “going to Belfast”. Despite the fact that, for 91 of her 110 years, she lived on the Beersbridge Road in Belfast, she remembered and considered Ballymacarrett as Ballymacarrett and Belfast as Belfast. She was firmly of the view that at least three of the major world industries that were claimed by the city of Belfast were actually resident in Ballymacarrett. [Laughter.]

Local government has suddenly become a good deal less local, and there have been curious constructions on its fringes. The council area that I represent — Castlereagh Central DEA — is pretty much to go lock, stock and barrel into the city of Belfast. That is not surprising, since all the roads go to Belfast; all the buses go to Belfast; the taxi companies go to Belfast; and the postcodes are Belfast. What is slightly more curious is the fact that to our left is Lisburn and to our right is Lisburn. To empty the bins in one part of the new Lisburn construction, they will have to go through the bit that is now in Belfast.

No matter what anyone says, I know that there may well be mathematically calculated reasons to establish a rates income. I know that there may be very sensible reasons in the political considerations of drawing lines on maps, and I have heard the term gerrymandering used frequently. I think that the first time that I heard that expression was in a James Young sketch, in which a BBC English-sounding reporter was interviewing people in the city of Belfast and asking them their opinion on the political situation. He got the usual Belfast answer from a man in a duncher, with a scarf round his neck and a cigarette butt behind his ear. When he was asked what he thought of gerrymandering, he said that he didn’t know Gerry Mandering, but he knew Gerry Fitt — and Fitt for Ulster! It was really a most humorous interchange.

The difficulty is that Dundonald, which is a small village on the outskirts of the city of Belfast that was swamped by the growth of Belfast, is now, suddenly, to be linked, for whatever reason, with the borough and city of Lisburn. At the time, I was a councillor without any researchers, pollsters or scientific method of establishing whether the people of Dundonald felt a deep, historic and significant linkage with Lisburn, so I did some private research. I got a phonebook and I phoned every taxi company that operated in the greater Dundonald area. I asked them to tell me the last time that anyone had booked a taxi to go to Lisburn. They laughed at me. They could not remember; it did not happen.

I then wandered round Moat Park, Ballybeen, Davarr, the left hand side of the road, and Coronation Park. I talked to young people. I found Glen men and I found Blue men, but nowhere could I find anyone who had any interest in or knowledge of — indeed, some had never even heard of — Lisburn Distillery. [Laughter.] So, we do have an attack on our sense of identity.

I do not want to go into the geopolitics of it. I know that in Israel, for many years, they had a saying, “Next year in Jerusalem”, because they felt that their capital city was in the hands of others. That would be to take a negative approach to this.

As a councillor, I know that many councillors of all parties have and express privately about what they really think of this place, with its “Fancy salaries, high expenses, ministerial cars and government Departments”. They see this as a legislative Assembly that takes a set amount of money from the Westminster Exchequer and bean-counts and divides it, according to the will of those in the Chamber.

Councillors see themselves as having something that they refer to, quite properly in many ways, as a tax-raising power. They see us — I was going to say “youse” there, but I cannot hide behind that term — as looking at them, with their tax-raising power called “the rates”, and they fear that we shall transfer function without ultimate finance from this place to them, and that the responsibility for raising the finance to discharge those functions will reside with them. I have to say that if we think that they will go to the electorate, having raised the rates to cover the cost of functions transferred from this place on their behalf to allow them to assume responsibility for it, I think that within the closed and cosseted rooms of political parties, there may well be some serious conversations.

It is important to remember that although rambunctious political debate and the possession and putting forward of opinions goes with the territory, the truth is that 3,500 people gave their lives for us to sit in here to take matters seriously, and their children and loved ones who remain are entitled to a dignified explanation of why we are forced to do what we do.

For the life of me, I know that Dundonald, Ballybeen and those estates, or the Newtownards Road, lifted from where their families had lived for generations in streets without gardens and, in some cases, without toilets and dumped in the middle of the country with gardens — but no shops, pubs or bookies and none of the fabric of the thread of life that goes to make up a city. The Newtownards Road and Ballybeen are the same place; they are just separated by a ribbon of tarmac. I dare say that the same thing applies to those who were evacuated from the Shankill to Rathcoole and other places. Their hearts, homes and grannies are in those places from which they were moved. We need to bear in mind that the most important word in local government is “local” and ensure that we enshrine that in everything that we do.

A heavy responsibility falls on you, Minister. You are the driver of a bus in many ways, but, unfortunately, the passengers are dictating where the bus goes on this particular issue. You may take it in a certain direction for a certain time, but it will become apparent to them at some stage that they are not going where they want to. At that stage, you must take your own decision.

As I say, the most important word in local government is “local”, and many of us who have a history or grounding in local government know what it delivers. It delivered democracy at a time when places like this did not exist and could not deliver. Although they were not always models of democracy, they were, in very many cases, superb methods of delivery of a reasonable service at a reasonable price. People need to bear in mind the importance of the word “local” in all of this. Thank you, sir.”

I’m a progressive traditionalist, liberal conservative, left wing captialist, free thinking fundamentalist, am too fond of playing devils advocate for my own good, and a fondness for the occasional shock comment, put all that together with a tendancy to drop in the odd risky one-liner(occasionally even funny ones) would lead me to issue the appeal not to take what I say too seriously.