Meet NILGA’s Derek McCallan, a rare political optimist in Northern Ireland who argues that the coming election in May offers extraordinary opportunities for change in local communities. He tells me that councillors are the most public spirited people you can get and that May could turn out to be the most meaningful local election in forty years.
After a week of gloomy debate about the efficacy of voting and the state of party politics in Northern Ireland last week, it’s helpful to hear a voice from behind the scenes, someone who works with elected representatives in local government from across the political spectrum.
Derek McCallan heads up the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. NILGA is a lobby group for councils and councillors from all political backgrounds meaning McCallan works side by side with members from Sinn Féin, the DUP, and everyone in between.
It’s his job to remain optimistic about government in Northern Ireland. But McCallan is genuinely enthusiastic about local democracy. He’s travelled the world visiting municipal administrations collecting wisdom about how to create structures that empower local people to shape and define their areas.
There are dramatic changes coming to local government in Northern Ireland. These changes will amount to “the greatest shakeup in more than 40 years” according to NILGA. 26 councils are becoming 11 and will be given new powers to plan, invest in and develop local communities.
Recently in the Belfast Telegraph, McCallan argued that the elections in May would be “the most meaningful local election in more than four decades.” I asked him to explain to me why.
“It’s the most meaningful because people will be aware that they’ll be voting for councillors and councils who will be performing different functions and services which demonstrably effect local communities.”
“Secondly it’s the most meaningful because local government’s boundaries and structures are all changing. So you’ll have, what’s being referred to on some occasions, as super councils, where those eleven will have greater powers, and greater functions.”
“If you want effective local administration and effective local representation this is the first time in awhile that people have had to rethink their views on the requirements of local government.”
“There hasn’t been this offering, there hasn’t been this kind of material change since 1972. So it is a political milestone. But it’s also an opportunity for regular folk to look forward to the role of the new councils to mandate those people who are going to effectively put local people first.”
Greater power might be coming to local councils, but what I wanted to know from McCallan is what’s at stake for average people. “There’s a huge opportunity for local government in Northern Ireland to actually invert this pyramid of central, regional—and government administrations being turned into local authorities where the authority is with local people.”
As an example, McCallan tells me how his own organisation, in collaboration with DETI and InvestNI, have applied for Northern Ireland to be the European Entrepreneurial Region in 2015. This is an award which celebrates the most forward thinking visions in Europe. It’s an important chance for each of the distinct 11 councils to highlight local enterprise. “But not just at a regional level. I’m talking about in Dungannon, in Ballymoney, in Newry.” It would allow local people to get involved in Foreign Direct Investment. And if Northern Ireland is successful in June, McCallan said, it would be an award for “real people, real folk.”
I asked McCallan what he has learned by working side by side with councillors all across Northern Ireland from all the main parties. “Local government, in terms of elected members and officials and participants in local government are probably amongst the most public spirited people you can get in Northern Ireland. And the reason for that is twofold. They’re not really in it for profit or money—they’re public servants, after all. And secondly they’re extremely close to every street and every field in every local community. So they know what they do makes a difference.”
McCallan told me the the time commitment and work load of a councillor is immense. “It’s more a question of when they’re not at work,” he said. “A combination of public spiritedness and technology means you’re never off duty. I know many councillors who could confirm 60 plus hours a week.”
Changes will not come all at once, and while they will be dramatic on a structural level, it will take time for people to feel their evidence. The local community in council areas will be handed the opportunity to get further involved in decision taking—whether planning, roads, water, or a festival.
“I’m quite reticent about saying people are going to see a big change over night. This is going to be an opportunity to influence over time, more democratic—accountability and better services in local areas. That’s going to be an incremental change.”
“But I do think that people will see that councils can offer them ways to influence pretty much all of the things that are talked about in the media. How do I sustain local people, younger people, how are they retained in my area? I don’t want to go to America, I don’t want to go to London.”
“There will be a greater sphere of influence and greater accessibility to the various tiers of government, which many people find either confusing or impenetrable. So to me, it’s councils, apart from the new services, and the existing services, a lot of things will remain the same, but I think councils will now be a gateway to better local influence of decisions that government is making.”