The DUP launched their local government manifesto for Belfast on Monday. I have always been intrigued by the DUP as they come across as a fiscally conservative party, yet they do seem to enjoy spending money, so, I went along to City Hall and spoke with the party’s council leader, Lee Reynolds about what his party propose to do over the next council term, issues around flags, rates and leisure centres all featured.
I began by asking him about the DUPs policy of keeping Belfast a low taxed city while promising many new programmes such as a rapid transit system?
Lee argued that with a growing economy and the success of the council’s efficiency programme that the party would be able to continue a policy of holding down rate rises this year. For Lee, he believes that the council should continue to undergo restructuring in order to make it more efficient and that the extension of successful programmes such as the empty property scheme to the new areas of the council should help in generating more revenue.
We also examined big issues such as the proposal to transfer the control of leisure of centres into a new trust. I told him about my experiences with staff members who are fearful that these changes will lead to their centre either being closed down or severe job cuts.
Lee argued that the scare mongering by certain Unions over this issues is more about internal politics than good management. He stated that even under the trust structure the decision about whether a centre remains open still rests with the council and that the proposals submitted by relevant Unions would have involved huge price rises and the cancellation of certain schemes. Lee set out in detail the benefits of the trust proposal saying that under this structure the city can save half a million pounds with VAT exemptions, moreover, the new leisure trust will also be in a position to bid for financial assistance that the city council is not able to do.
We then moved onto interfaces and how the party propose to deal with this issue across our city. I put to him a charge frequently laid out by the Alliance party that the DUP doesn’t take shared future issues seriously enough;
It is the typical rubbish that the Alliance party comes out with. The stall has been set out for the future of Unionism and rounding up the wagons is not the future for Unionism either figuratively or literally.
But, how did he feel that peace walls could be brought down?
Lee states that the DUP are already engaged in work around normalisation and new security mechanisms but he firmly believes that the people who decide when the walls come down are those who live beside them, and the key is finding the ways in which we can build community confidence that can allow walls to be brought down.
We then moved on to the parts of the DUP manifesto which talk about the attacks on British culture that have been ongoing over the last few years; I argued to Lee that in City Hall there are mostly British symbols and memorials to events important to Unionism, how was there an attack on Britishness?
Lee walked me through the attempts made to see the removal of British symbols from City Hall; he argued that the logic of ‘they came for the flag and nothing else’ just isn’t true. In order to protect what the DUP sees as further attacks on the rights of Unionism the party is willing to use the new qualified majority voting mechanism on the council and that the days of giving your political opponents a ‘bloody nose’ are over.
I wanted to know about relations with Sinn Fein over the past few years and how they have gotten worse particularly since 2010;
There has been a step back in relationships. Well, for a start there has been a significant change in the personnel on their side. You’d find that the Sinn Fein ones in here were too soft and too friendly to Unionists and removed them, and gave us a selection of people whose job it was to be the opposite and that has a consequence.
Do the DUP bear any of the responsibility for the decline in relations and have they not done anything to put relations on the back foot?
Not that I am conscious of….The channels for communication became more limited…If nationalism and republicanism hadn’t chose to push the identity issues that they have over the past few years, I think Belfast City Council would almost be, look at what the council has done why can’t the Assembly be more like that, but they chose to throw a bottle of poison into the well of goodwill.
There doesn’t seem to be much likelihood that with new powers, our councillors will be embracing each other in a spirit of goodwill and bi-partisanship.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs