Unionists clash over councils 'carve-up' as battle heats up
The Ulster Unionists and the DUP have clashed over an alleged "carve-up" of Northern Ireland's new councils.
As it launched its manifesto in Enniskillen, the UUP claimed a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein would result in higher rates and fail to achieve the projected savings to the public purse in amalgamating the current 26 councils into 11.
The party has, along with the SDLP, been in favour of a merger model which would have seen 15 rather than 11 new authorities.
Former leader Tom Elliott told the gathering: "We believe that this has been a carve-up all along. We make no apology for saying that. We believe it's unwise."
The Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA said the boundary changes which the party opposed in the Assembly raised the question 'how local will local government be?'.
"When you drive out of the main gates of Stormont, go past Dundonald Hospital heading towards Newtownards and you will actually be in the Lisburn City Council area," he said.
"How local is Ballybeen estate with Moira? How local will Belcoo be with Carrickmore? I believe we will have lost that nature of local government. We don't oppose the reform of local government in general, we opposed the type of reform coming in."
The DUP, however, countered that the charge from the UUP represented "an admission of defeat" before a single vote had been cast in the polls a fortnight from today.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton argued: "The only people who will 'carve' anything in the new councils will be those who can win seats by virtue of support from the public; that is how elections work.
"It is particularly disappointing for unionists in the west of Northern Ireland to hear such a demoralising message from someone who should know better.
"It is worth noting, however, that whilst criticising the new council boundaries, the UUP's preferred option would have meant unionists in Londonderry would not have sufficient strength to benefit from minority protections which will be of key importance in such councils."
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt told the event in Enniskillen – a party stronghold – the argument over the number of councils, which also envisaged seven at one point, "is over".
Mr Nesbitt also argued the party's veteran MEP Jim Nicholson should be supported by more than just unionist voters. "Jim knows Brussels, but much more importantly, Brussels knows Jim. When Jim speaks, Brussels will listen," he said.
Mr Nicholson said: "It is little wonder that the EU lacks the trust and confidence of the public. The EU has lost its way and reform and refocus is needed.
"Now is the time to assess the EU to ensure it is fit for purpose and delivers.
"This is why as a party we are advocating a review – to assess the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU and the way in which the EU functions.
"The public must therefore be given a clear choice – remain in the reformed EU or exit."