Environment minister Mark H Durkan is on a collision course with Castlereagh Borough Council after it chose to ignore warnings over excluding minority parties from groups overseeing the introduction of new 'super councils'.
At a full council meeting on August 27, the unionist dominated council voted not to review its appointments to the Statutory Transition Committees despite formal warning from the Minister. Mr Durkan has now taken steps to force the council into a "fair and democratic appointment process" by asking officials to investigate the steps necessary to allow him to "direct the council by order and/or to allow the department to make the nominations and to prepare accordingly".
Alliance councillor Michael Long said that it was "sad and "disappointing" that the council had chosen to ignore the guidance of the minister. "Hopefully now that Mr Durkan has said he will be taking a tough stance we will begin to see some movement," he said.
"The worry is that if it was allowed to go unpunished now at this stage then why would they behave any differently next time around or in the new council.
"Hopefully it will raise awareness for the need for firm legislation to ensure that minority parties are not blocked out of councils.
"It is a real pity that you would have to force people to power share but that is the reality of it."
DUP group leader on the council Jimmy Spratt said the party had followed the original guidelines until the Minister decided to change them. "The majority in the council has made its decision and that is how it is going to rest," he said.
UUP group leader Michael Henderson was adamant the council had adhered to the guidelines. "The matter was voted on and passed by the full Council. The decision can only be changed by a rescinding motion, which would take six months to be voted upon."
Five district councils have been accused of nominating in a manner contrary to the spirit of the regulations. The Minister had warned that he would force their hands if they did not "abide by the letter and spirit of guidance issued by his department".
The guidance centres on using the d'Hondt system based on the 2011 election results, which ensures power is shared between parties in proportion to votes received.
Following the decision the minister said that he was disappointed that some councils had chosen to waste their committees' valuable time by returning to "tribal politics" based on division and political expediency. "I have now asked my officials to begin drafting amended regulations which will specify exactly how this nomination process should proceed in those offending areas. I have also asked them to investigate the steps necessary to allow me to direct councils by order or allow the department to make modifications. I hope this will not be necessary but I am prepared to do it," he said.
"This reform is about putting citizens, ratepayers and local businesses at the heart of local government. It is about improving services for them and I will not allow party political self-interest to get in the way.