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Our vision of a shared future could be lost in new political landscape

If the Assembly fails to survive the current crisis, the 11 new 'super-councils' will be pressed into service to fill the political vacuum. But are they fit for purpose, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Published 04/09/2015

Northern Ireland’s 11 super councils will become the focus of political parties and the media should Stormont fall under Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Northern Ireland’s 11 super councils will become the focus of political parties and the media should Stormont fall under Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

Imagine an Irish border that runs from east of the city of Derry, due south, turning up towards Kilrea from the middle of the Sperrins, then back down along the western shore of Lough Neagh. Take it then from Maghery near Dungannon on a wiggledy course to the current border and what have you got?

You have the boundary line between nationalist-dominated councils in the west and the unionist-dominated councils in the east.

It wouldn't make for a perfect repartition of Northern Ireland, because it would leave Belfast nationalists in the unionist east, cut off from the other predominantly Irish territories. And it would leave Newry and south Armagh divided from the rest by the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council area.

But then nothing in Northern Ireland is, or can be, as either side would prefer. That is the very essence of the problem.

If Stormont falls, as seems likely now, that boundary line will begin to look significant.

Without an Assembly capable of legislating, the main focus of political parties and of the media will be those 11 new councils.

That's where parties will send their talent to hone their political skills and that is pretty much all there will be for newspapers and broadcasters to report on. So we have good reason to look at them more closely now.

Councils will deal with leisure, waste disposal, cemeteries, planning ... and nappies. Belfast City Council is planning to introduce a scheme for subsidising washable nappies to cut down on the pollution caused by the disposable types.

The concerns of local government often get dismissed as "parish pump", but, really what do we need a higher tier for in Stormont if it can't distinguish itself with grander concerns? And it hasn't.

We gave Stormont education and it couldn't agree on selection, or fund the universities properly. The councils would at least do no worse. We gave it roads to look after and it planned a big A5, but couldn't build it.

And people care about their parks and their leisure centres and their wheelie bins and they care about nappies and dog poo and we'd be buried under them if it was Stormont's job to manage them.

Of course, Stormont also gives us a forum for our big sectarian squabble. Can the councils give us that if nationalists and unionists are parked at opposite sides of the region?

These issues don't get listed on their websites among their areas of responsibility, but they will have a lot to say and on the contentious issues of flags, language and identity and they will mostly be free to make clear, unambiguous decisions.

So, councils provide opportunities for areas to identify themselves as Irish, or British. And they are not constrained by power-sharing. Already some councils have given themselves Irish names. Newry and Mourne prioritises its Irish name over its English one.

In a way, these councils are each like the old pre-Troubles, majority-rule Stormont in miniature ... and we know how that turned out. They will decide for themselves which flags to fly and how much power, if any, to share.

But while the predominance of nationalism in the west and unionism in the east this will look like repartition, it is not the repartition that either party would have devised for itself.

It seems, superficially, to benefit republicans and nationalists and the Irish identity by creating the prospect of a swathe of councils along the border with nationalist/republican majorities, but it is not so simple.

It is unionist councils in the east which have the most imposing majorities. They are the ones that can enjoy a sense of undiluted, virtually uncontested supremacy, if they wish. There'll be little need for them to worry about a shared future.

Counting the seats, but leaving out Alliance and Greens and independents, accepting their refusal to be categorised in the sectarian carve-up, there are five unionist strongholds - North Down and Ards, Antrim and Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid and East Antrim, and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon. There are no councils in the west in which the nationalist/republican majority advantage is as great as in any of these. North Down and Ards has 26 unionists to one nationalist. Lisburn and Castlereagh has 30-3. The biggest nationalist advantage in the west is Derry and Strabane with 25-10.

Nationalists would not have carved up the region in this way, leaving large numbers of possible voters entrenched as permanent minorities in unionist areas. Some of those areas, like Armagh and south Armagh, have produced the most radical republican activism.

Unionists, had they drawn the line, might have preferred to carve up the west differently and not leave large minorities in Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh and Derry and Strabane.

Their consolation for losing influence in the west is that they have consolidated in the east. They now have five big councils in which they hardly need pay any attention to nationalist concerns. There is one big exception to the impression that this is a carve-up: Belfast swings both ways. What does all this presage about a Northern Ireland without Stormont, under direct rule, but with most local political activity happening in the councils? It suggests that the communal upheavals will be in Belfast, with its revolving-door council.

Unionists may expect their more homogeneous councils in the east will be more stable. Small nationalist minorities will cause little disruption.

Nationalists may look on the challenge of accommodating larger unionist minorities in the west as a creative one, an opportunity to demonstrate their vaunted egalitarianism, or they may find those minorities more difficult to placate because they are larger and louder. Northern Ireland only really became troublesome when the nationalist minority grew big enough to voice expectations of justice and to organise protest against discrimination.

Conversely, in the Republic, the Protestant minority quickly accepted the state, perhaps just because it was so small it had no alternatives beyond acquiescence, or immigration.

The danger of the collapse of Stormont is not that Northern Ireland will seem ungoverned and a lost cause, but that it will appear to have been cantonised, like Switzerland, a model that some unionist leaders studied as a possible solution in the 1970s.

We have been given three models of canton as experiments in managing sectarianism. One model is the comprehensive unionist majority. Another is the substantial nationalist majority and the other is the balanced weighting of unionists and nationalists in Belfast.

The first type is hardly likely to provide unionism with much training in countering sectarianism. It is more likely to provide the sectarian comfort of not having to think much about what nationalists want. It augurs ill for a shared future.

The second is little better, allowing nationalists sufficient seats to have their way in most things, but at least exposing them to a potentially vigorous opposition.

And each of these models may teach us something about how this region can govern itself in the future - or if it can.

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