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?

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