It's majority rule in 10 out of 11 new super councils: Middle squeezed in an orange and green carve-up
Fears over protections for minority communities in the new council areas are mounting as Stormont's two main power blocs tighten their grip on local government.
Ten of the 11 new super councils are either unionist or nationalist-controlled, consolidating the east-west political split in Northern Ireland and fuelling fears over how their respective minorities will be treated.
Between them the DUP and Sinn Fein now account for just over half of the 462 council seats – putting them in pole position to secure key council posts as the new authorities begin to hold their first meetings today.
Concerns are now being raised that politics at local level could cement the divisions which have been evident at Stormont.
Only Belfast remains a 'hung' council, where Alliance holds the balance of power between unionists and nationalists.
Alliance Party leader David Ford, who had hoped his party would hold a similar position in other councils, said the new authorities have to move beyond 'orange and green' and ensure a fair distribution of council posts.
"As the new councils will have more responsibilities, it is imperative that councillors move beyond the orange and green tribal politics and towards a more inclusive style of governing," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Councillors must work together to deliver the best possible services for ratepayers, and council positions must be fairly distributed."
Arnold Hatch, President of the umbrella councils body, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said: "The large parties tend to dominate, whether it's the west of the province with Sinn Fein or the east of the province with the DUP. That has been the case.
"But at the same time 99% of the decisions which councils have to take are done on a consensual basis and my firm belief is that if councils are given real responsibilities they will knuckle down to that work and these petty arguments over positions will diminish."
Bill White, chair of the Belfast Telegraph's partner polling organisation LucidTalk, said: "I think it is arguable that the boundaries for the new Belfast council were designed in such a way to ensure it would remain a hung council – as predicted by ourselves and many others.
"I think the hope was that there would be more hung councils, in Causeway Coast and Glens, for example, and Mid and East Antrim, but that has not turned out to be the case."
Elections analyst Nicholas Whyte argued the provisions for minority protection were stronger at local government level than at Stormont.
He added: "I'd have thought the basic equation is six unionist-majority councils and four nationalist-majority councils which then decide for themselves how they are going to play it."
Stormont Minister Mark H Durkan, who oversees the councils, insisted the new Local Government Act demands that positions of responsibility on a council be shared among the parties and that committees reflect the make-up of the council.
"It also provides statutory protections for the interests of minority communities in council decision-making," he said.
"I am satisfied that the Act, as passed by the Assembly, will provide a robust framework for the operation of councils that deliver for everyone in a fair and transparent manner."
Between them, Sinn Fein and the DUP have grabbed 235 seats on the 11 new super councils.
Their dominance is geographically spread – six of the new authorities are unionist-controlled and four nationalist-controlled, with Belfast alone remaining 'hung'.
While SF and the DUP dominated the recent council elections, the UUP also made gains – ending up with 88 seats – while the SDLP slipped just below their stated target of 70 seats, to 66.
Alliance also under-performed in some key areas, totalling 32 seats, but tightened its grip on the balance of power in Belfast. Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice gained 13 seats.