Local democracy in NI: Have our problems got bigger, or our politics smaller?

Okay, a short break from focusing on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Malachi O’Doherty has been looking at the grand palais of local democracy that is the Belfast City Council chamber. And what goes on there:

It looks like the sort of place world affairs are hammered out in. Actually it is the drain into which our sectarian toxins flow.

And as for power? Well, there’s the bins and the parks and cemeteries and not much more.

Belfast City Council has been the forum for some of the most outrageous and vitriolic squabbling and the real question is whether this has been good for us or bad.


It is good if it provides a platform which the outrage would not otherwise have. If letting the councillors vent their sectional passions against each other provides a safety valve that prevents the old intercommunal malice from tearing apart the Assembly and the Executive, then maybe it is better that the snarling is done in the city rather than on the hill.

But if the council is a bear pit that only encourages point scoring and if it is just a relic of bad politics, a place where the stale vapours linger to do no good for anyone, then perhaps a bunch of paid technocrats could run the city better without the bad odour of factionalism.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two ends of that one dialectic. There is more co-operation going on than often meets the controversialist public eye.

Vexed question over Christmas lights and the timing of flags is what democracy is reduced to. So we have no controversial schemes over trams like Dublin or Edinburgh to contend with.

But a little like the co-habitation at OFMdFM, it is almost as though our politics does not go deep enough to actually do stuff across the chamber. Malachi again:

Go back to 1972 and Paddy Wilson of the SDLP (who was later murdered by loyalists) is making that very point to reporters in Kelly’s Cellars.

“Why do we need a council? Why do you have to declare your commitment to a community or a political ideology to get a chance at running the city? It’s not as if the councillors are going to decide whether Ireland will be united or the country is to be run on socialist lines. They’ll have nothing to do with it.”

Tall order when developments on one side of the street in north Belfast brings in angry phone calls to councillors from residents on the other…

Have our problems just got bigger, or did our politics just get smaller?


  • Drumlins Rock

    The council is virtually meaningless, and RPA will make it even more so, which is not right for a regional capital of almost half a million people, one size fits all local goverment is wrong, Belfast should be expanded to its natural limits and given a council with real powers, throw in some check and balances like the assembly if you want, or go for an elected mayor/joint mayors.

    The political farce is more a symptom than a cause of its impotence, the control of almost all powers at stormont taken together with the artifical boundaries current and proposed mean that the best politicians on earth could do no better, as it stands why would anyone with the necessary skills and ambition even be interested in the job?

  • Morpheus

    Why is the system suddenly broken? Where were the calls to change the rules 15 years ago? 10 years ago? 5 years ago? Pre-December 2012?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Morph, Paddy Wilson was pointing out it was broken in 1972, it might be a Sammy Wilson pointing out it is broken now, and quite a few distractions have happened in the meantime. Unfortunately the current proposals will just break things a little bit more for another wasted generation.

  • Barnshee

    In a society where the economic activity is insufficient for everyone to have a meaningful task there has to be some means of keeping people occupied.

    Thus we have the bloated “public sector” and its familiar the local councils/assembly band wagon—somewhere for the (useless) locals to go to keep them off the streets and out of all day sessions at the bookies or the pub.

    God bless the British taxpayer (SE England Branch)

  • Morpheus

    @Drumlins Rock

    Thanks for the reply.

    Forgive me if I am wrong but the new council boundaries do not affect Belfast. In fact, goingf rom the census results of all 26 Councils only Limavedy and Moyle should be annoyed. In all other cases what was a Catholic majority before will be a Catholic majority after and vice versa. Example 1 :Strabane has a Catholic majority now and Fermanagh has a Catholic majority now and Strabane/Fermanagh will continue to be a Catholic majority.
    Example 2: , Armagh, Banbride and Craigavon all have Protestant majorities now and Armagh/Banbride/Craigavon will have a Protestant majority.

    However, Limavedy and Moyle currently have Catholic majorities but when they join Limavedy/Moyle/Ballymoney/Coleraine the Catholics become a minority.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Morph, Belfast boundaries will be tweeked a little, but the council will lose as much powers as it gains, it had some standing being so much larger than the others, but will at best be reduced to first among equals when they increase in size, strangely for a country boy I actually think this is wrong.

    The few changes will probably mean Belfast changes from split to overall nationalsit majority, in return Moyle and Limavady will come under Unionist control, rather than Nationalsit, and Armagh also will come under Unionist control from its current split.

  • Morpheus

    No, Armagh was marginally unionist before and will continue to be after when it joins Armagh/Banbride/Craigavon.

    In fact Armagh would have been a possible swing council because the difference between Catholic and Protestant was so low.

    Limavedy and Moyle are the only councils that will change from a majority to a minority – in fact they will go from a significant majority to a significant minority They will go from a majority to a 3:1 against minority judging from the census.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Hi Morphesus, was going by council seats, it is likely to remain almost 50/50 if boundaries remain as it it is not an area of big population changes. However Craigavon is already past the 45/55 point and could therefore swing or alliance become brokers in a cycle or two, however Banbridge is 2:1 Unionists and even though small will be enuogh to ensure the entire block stays orange for sometime yet.

  • In answer to the question posed, Neither; just the same old….

  • aquifer

    Bigger councils will get bigger powers, over urban regeneration for example, and capable technocrats will do enough to make our councillors look competent. The sectarian slanging will be overshadowed, even more than now, by government actually working and doing stuff.

    An important role for elected assemblies is generating consent to be governed, irrespective of the effectiveness of the councillors willing to be paid out of the petty cash tin.

    Otherwise people might start blaming bankers and the rich for the mess we are in, and where would that lead?

  • Morpheus

    @Drumlins Rock

    The Armagh/Banbride/Craigavon ward was one of the ones I was talking about earlier – there was a unionist majority before and there will be a unionist majority after the changes.

    From my analysis of the census results (and this is open to debate) the 11 wards will breakdown like this:

    1. Fermanagh/Omagh – approx 2 :1
    2. Derry/Strabane – approx 3:1
    3. Cookstown/Dungannon/Magherafelt – approx 2:1
    4. Down/Newry&Mourne – approx 3:1
    5. Belfast – approx 1.1:1

    1. Armagh/Banbridge/Craigavon – approx 1.2:1
    2. Ballymoney/Coleraine/Limavady/Moyle – approx 1.4:1
    3. Ballymena/Carrickfergus/Larne – approx 4:1
    4. Antrim/Newtownabbey – approx 2:1
    5. Castlereagh/Lisburn – approx 2:1
    6. Ards/North Down – approx 6:1

    So there will be 5 nationalist majority councils and 6 unionist majority councils.

    You can see the significance of the Limavady and Moyle wards now.

    If you look at the map then it is interesting viewing:

  • Barnshee

    “Bigger councils will get bigger powers, over urban regeneration for example, and capable technocrats will do enough to make our councillors look competent.”

    A lethal mixture of empire building “capable technocrats ” (my arse) and self agrandissing by councillors . God save the rate payer