Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Hunger strikers, play parks and councils

Local government is the crucible where opinions voiced by MLAs come into sharp focus, and where local issues can have a multiplier effect when they hit the media spotlight.

Gone are the days when councils were perceived as dealing with bins and burials; now they have a wide remit including district wide economic initiatives

We currently have 26 councils in this tiny territory, but this democratic  extravagance is soon to end. The latest step in the ongoing Reform of Public Administration came one step closer when the second stage of the Local Government Bill was passed by the Assembly to go to committee stage.

A new 11 council model with more powers for local government is one step closer. However, listening to the debate (yes we are that sad!) we were stunned by developments.

Apart from a few minor discussions about clauses there was broad consensus amongst our elected representatives...seriously folks they actually got along on okay when discussing this Bill! MLAs from across the spectrum generally were 'nice' to each other.

But then SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell opened his mouth... He apologised for his Newry councillors' decision to back a Sinn Féin proposal to name a play park after a dead hunger striker, Raymond McCreesh, sparking some unionists to claim it was too little too late. While Basil McCrea of NI21 welcomed the apology, one must wonders why McDonnell chose this debate to air his apology.

Was it the fact that the SDLP have only been in the headlines for the wrong reasons and needed to regain some sort of initiative.

This issue is a sensitive one; and while McDonnell said a motion was coming to his party conference to ban the naming of council facilities after victims, combatants etc, it is more a reflection of how local government works here.

Largely it is congenial, but as soon as there is an issue that hints at sectarian division, nationalists and republicans huddle together and the unionists gather the wagons in a circle.

All of which is slightly depressing, and may be why so few members of the public engage in council debates. Was McDonnell right to pick at this sore? Or should he have left it to a later stage and quietly gone about leading local government reform? And, what do his Newry and Mourne council colleagues feel like now that he has apologised on their behalf?

Perhaps of more concern is that this may sour the committee stage of the Local Government Bill – legislation that has the potential to do a lot of good by giving local councillors the tools they need to radically improve the economic and social prospects for their districts.

Grotesque? Surely not

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said that people who attack police wrapped in the union flag are “grotesque”. How can she tell?

When it comes to rioting, they tend to cover their faces. So how can Ms Villiers tell if they are grotesque?

They are surely ignorant and deluded.  But grotesque? Some of these folk might be quite handsome, with devilish charm.

One must always and forever avoid generalisations, because that is what got us into the state we are in (many a rioter could do with a 'real' history lesson).

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