Sinn Fein pledges to put councils shake-up back on agenda
The collapse of Northern Ireland’s local government shake-up will be back on the agenda at an early stage of the next Assembly, Sinn Fein has pledged.
The council elections in a fortnight should have been to 11 new merged authorities, but the DUP and Sinn Fein’s failure to agree last summer has meant the existing 26 separate local authorities will continue for the forseeable future.
Launching its local government strategy yesterday, Sinn Fein insisted the boundary squabble in Dunmurry which helped prevent the transfer to 11 councils, with envisaged savings of more than £420m over the next 25 years, could be resolved.
A Boundary Commission report recommended the south Belfast urban village shift from Lisburn council area into Belfast, but Environment Minister Edwin Poots, whose portfolio includes local government —and who was himself at the time a Lisburn councillor — stressed some 60,000 Dunmurry residents want to stay put.
Sinn Fein, however, argued that the DUP minister had a clear conflict of interest and it was unprecedented for a minister to unilaterally seek to change the proposals of the Boundary Commission and — as the Belfast Telegraph revealed — the fears of senior officials that the project was no longer feasible became a reality.
Sinn Fein councillor Sean McPeake yesterday said he believed parties will address the mergers issue under the review of public administration after having taken “their feet off the pedal” since last summer.
“I think there is a willingness to move forward now,” he said, but in the interim the party would seek to protect and expand the safeguards for existing power-sharing arrangements in town halls across the province.
Former Belfast Lord Mayor and MLA Alex Maskey said: “New legislation needs to be put in place which would allow for checks and balances and equality safeguards for the existing 26 councils before being transferred into the larger 11-council model.”
He added: “Because of the experiences of the misuse of local government powers, this legislation needs to be firmly bedded in place prior to any additional functions being transferred to the councils.”
The senior Sinn Fein representatives also discounted the Ulster Unionist attempt in its Assembly manifesto to reopen the debate in favour of shifting from 26 to 15 new councils, rather than 11.
Mr Maskey said he believed the DUP and Sinn Fein compromise on 11 would remain.
But a UUP spokesman said: “(We) will seek to put the reform of local government backon the agenda at Stormont.
“We have consistently argued for a 15-council model and will remain committed to ensuring that there will be genuine movement on the issue in the next Assembly.”