Although posing a danger of further entrenching sectarian divisions, local government reforms give Sinn Féin an opportunity to demonstrate a better model of governance in Ireland, writes Tommy McKearney
THE BRITISH government's latest proposal for changing the administration of local government in Northern Ireland could prove to be of much greater significance in the long term than anything that might happen within the grander surroundings of Stormont.
By dividing the six counties into two distinct areas - one identifiably nationalist and the other clearly unionist - London is not just signalling its despair of finding an agreed internal settlement but is also raising the spectre of re-partition.
There are currently 26 council areas in the six-counties. If changes proposed under the Review of Public Administration (RPA) go ahead, this number will be reduced to seven. And with no more than 50 council seats in any district, there will be approximately 33 per cent fewer local elected representatives.
However, of much more importance in the long run than the decreasing numbers of councils or councillors will be the positioning of boundaries. Under the terms of the published draft, local government in Northern Ireland will be divided, broadly speaking, along the east/west of the River Bann axis.
The first elections to these new bodies is planned for two years from now when voters will be asked to elect representatives who will take their seats in 2009. If recent voting trends continue until then - and there is no reason to believe they will change dramatically - the outcome will find nationalists controlling three chambers west of the Bann with unionism holding the upper hand in the other four.
Fond hopes among the Sinn Fein constituency that Belfast might change hands will now be dashed. Some traditional unionist districts have been transferred into the new Belfast City Council area leaving little prospect of the Union Jack being removed from the Lord Mayor's office in the near future.
To facilitate these changes, the Department of the Environment's taskforce on local government reform has been meeting over the summer in an attempt to develop guidelines for running the new councils. Particular attention has been paid, we are told, to the need to protect local minority rights.
Consequently, the taskforce is recommending that a 75 per cent majority be required in every council chamber before any measure is adopted.
This may frustrate some of the old style arbitrary and sectarian decision-making but it will not transform the situation. A blocking vote or veto can at best prevent an unwanted measure going through but it does not give the holders an opportunity to have one of their own measures adopted.
Initially at any rate, council powers will be limited. Councillors will have control over planning and they will be asked to devise a community plan for the delivery of local needs. They will not have responsibility for education, health, employment or public sector housing.
This situation is unlikely to change soon. In the event of agreement on the establishment of an executive, enhancing local government powers will be a non-runner since doing so would only dilute the already slim influence of the devolved assembly.
Paradoxically, if the parties fail to agree at regional level, there is little likelihood that Westminster will reward their local representatives with additional resources and/or authority.
With their powers curtailed, the new councils will probably concentrate on perfectly worthy but ultimately divisive cultural and community issues. This could see nationalist dominated chambers emphasising aspects such as promotion of the Irish language, encouraging traditional Irish music and dance, elevating the profile of the GAA and the hosting of endless visits from Dublin based politicians.
Unionist councils will match this by funding more Somme Battle interpretive centres, hosting Ulster Scots festivals and ensuring that the names of ancient town-lands are buried by crude Anglicisation.
Nor indeed might this be the sum total of their efforts. When competing nationalisms get into their stride, they can create mountains of artificial differences. It is not impossible to imagine a situation where driving between the 'Protestant east' and 'Catholic west' could in time come to resemble at best a journey between Barcelona and Madrid or at worst a trip from Croatia to Serbia.
There is nothing inevitable, however, about the out-working of the proposed changes. On current calculations, Sinn Fein should hold significant influence in the three council areas west of the River Bann. If the party were to view the new arrangement not just as evidence of the failure of efforts to treat Northern Ireland as a normal viable political entity but as an opportunity to display a progressive political agenda, some value might emerge from this initiative.
Republicans could, for example, display exemplary generosity towards unionists for a start. They could also use their powers over planning to influence business development while simultaneously seeking to champion workers rights. In short, they could demonstrate a better model of governance than anything currently in place in Ireland.
Whatever direction the new departure takes, the British government is finally acknowledging what the rest of the world has known for years - Northern Ireland is not a normal, viable political entity. The difficulty will be to make them act responsibly in light of their own analysis.
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Copyright © 2007 Tommy McKearney