Reforms could mean tight battles and many recounts
Published 13/05/2014 | 12:00
Even at this late stage people can be forgiven if they are unsure about which council they are voting for next week – assuming they are coming out to vote at all.
The outlook for five of the new 'super councils' outside Belfast can be read on these pages today, followed by the remainder tomorrow.
After more than a decade of stand-off and delay, Stormont finally decided that 26 into 11 would go – although it actually will be another year before the new authorities totally replace the existing ones.
But it is not only the number of councils that are being reduced. The total number of councillors across Northern Ireland will go down from 582 to 460.
That not only makes comparisons difficult, it could make the electoral battle for the last seats in many of the district electoral areas extremely tight. So don't be surprised if several re-counts are demanded long after polling on Thursday, May 22.
There have even been dire predictions that the council counting will have to be halted late on Saturday to allow the European vote to be counted on the following Monday, May 26.
The council count would then resume on the Tuesday.
The parties claim that the first elections here in three years are creating a degree of public interest.
This is also the first time that the European Parliament race has been held on the same day as the local government contest, and the prospects are that both will benefit from the juxtaposition.
But if some surveys show people are vague when asked if they can name their MEP, particularly on the mainland, then anecdotally over here they are not clear about their looming new council districts either.
The parties privately admit people are aware in general of changes in local government but in many cases may not know which council or councils their own is being amalgamated with.
That should not be a surprise, either. Some officials believe it will take 10 years or more before the new larger entities begin to stamp their own identities onto the areas they represent, even with enhanced planning, housing and tourism powers.
All of this provides the context for emphasising that today's forecasts should be taken with an even larger health warning than most polls.
Bill White is the first to admit his conclusions could be wide of the mark.
But he has given a well-informed guess on where we might be heading.
Predictions based on the results of the last local government elections suggest that six of the 11 new super councils will be unionist-controlled, and the DUP would be in the driving seat in three of them. Under that same analysis, four would be nationalist controlled authories, with Belfast remaining a 'hung' council, with Alliance holding the balance of power.
In that scenario, the safeguards for minority communities – whether nationalist or unionist – which were built into the Local Government Bill would become more important than ever.
The real test for our new authorities is how they each avoid becoming 'mini-Stormonts' on issues such as flags.