Belfast Telegraph

Could Belfast City Council really be the template for a stable Assembly?

The fact that no party enjoys an overall majority means councillors' decisions are reached by negotiation. Stormont would do well to take note, says Andy Pollak

Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through relatively harmonious inter-party relationships
Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through relatively harmonious inter-party relationships

After last month's collapse of the Stormont talks, this is the right time to tell a rare political good news story: how Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through the kind of relatively harmonious inter-party relationships that appear to be almost completely absent from the Executive and Assembly's mistrust-fuelled proceedings.

In the 1980s, when I was a reporter in Belfast, the council's meetings were notorious for sectarian squabbling and hate-mongering: endless DUP calls to ban Sinn Fein; Sinn Fein descriptions of the Union flag as the "butcher's apron"; proceedings sometimes having to be suspended for fear of physical violence; and even one DUP councillor, George Seawright (afterwards expelled from the party and later killed by a fringe republican group), calling for the "incineration" of Catholics who objected to the national anthem.

At one meeting in 1985, I listened to that arch-Brexiteer and climate change denier Sammy Wilson, soon to become the DUP's first Lord Mayor of Belfast, condemning the council's project to build a concert hall (which turned out to be its most inspired public investment of the past 30 years) as "a fraud, a white elephant with no prospect of enriching this city". Fast-forward to Belfast City Council today. What a transformation.

No single party - or, more importantly, coalition of unionist or nationalist, parties - has a majority. Sinn Fein holds 19 of the 60 seats, the DUP 13 and Alliance eight. Smaller numbers are held by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Greens and People Before Profit.

This multiplicity has put deal-making at the heart of the council's business, a process which, as often as not, involves the more centrist parties and is reflected in the compromise decisions which are the stuff of the city's politics.

At its two most powerful committees - strategic policy and resources and city growth and regeneration - officials work hard to persuade councillors to reach agreement by consensus.

Eighty percent of the time they succeed and decisions do not have to go to a vote of the full council.

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One senior official says that, some time in the past 15 to 20 years, most councillors - including from the DUP and Sinn Fein - realised the best way to provide efficient public services was by agreement.

They use a party leaders' forum and other informal working groups, where the politicians and city officials have preliminary discussions and try to iron out any difficult issues. "They realise they will get nothing done if they vote on purely tribal lines," says the senior official.

He adds Belfast has been blessed with effective chief executives over the past two decades, notably Peter McNaney and the current incumbent, Suzanne Wylie, backed up by excellent staff.

And he pays tribute to the councillors, most of whom live in the communities they represent, for a common "willingness to compromise to get things done".

Unlike in the past, committee memberships, committee chairs and other post of responsibility and council appointments to outside public bodies are decided by extremely complex and ultra-fair European voting systems, like D'Hondt and Sainte-Lague. The days of the Ulster Unionist monolith automatically handing out jobs to their cronies are a distant memory.

Unlike in the Assembly, no councillor is required to define herself, or himself, in sectarian terms as unionist, nationalist, or other.

There are no petitions of concern to stymie decision-making. For most of the time, councillors' minds are focused on practical services to their constituents, rather than divisive national, or tribal, issues, like flags and language and legacies of the past.

Loyalist violence following the council's 2012 decision to fly the Union flag on only 17 days a year - in line with elsewhere in the UK - gave the council an entirely unfair image of continued deep division over such issues.

What seems to have happened is the overall politics have become more progressive and less conservative in the past decade.

There is a greater degree of agreement - sometimes in united opposition to the DUP - among the majority, whether they're republican, or social democratic, or progressive (ie Alliance and the PUP).

For example, in 2015, the council voted in support of marriage equality. Another crucial change is the council now has more women (more than a third, compared to under 10% two decades ago) and more younger members.

The council has set up the Shared City Partnership to involve business, trade union, church, voluntary sector, social care and housing groups in advising it on taking forward its good relations policies for Belfast.

It has worked hard - if not always successfully - to keep the problem of Eleventh Night bonfires in loyalist areas under control. It has persuaded loyalist groups, in particular, to replace intimidating paramilitary murals with more muted representations of culture and community.

In all this, the Alliance Party, as the third largest (with eight out of 60 seats, compared with eight out of 90 in the Northern Ireland Assembly) has played a key role.

One of its younger councillors, Emmet McDonough-Brown, puts it like this: "The broader the consensus between the parties and the wider the civic conversation among the people of Belfast, the more stable any agreement and the more effective and long-lasting any outcome will be.

"No party has overall control of the council, so Sinn Fein and the DUP can achieve nothing on their own: they have to engage with the other parties. Alliance often finds it is holding the balance of power - a strong and privileged position.

"We will work with both the DUP and Sinn Fein, depending on the issue. That gives us a chance to advance our core aim: to build a shared and reconciled city.

"Sinn Fein and the DUP are still the largest parties, but there are lots of people in the city - young people, women and minority ethnic groups, in particular - who fall outside that duopoly. We are committed to giving those people a voice."

There is a lesson here for the British and Irish governments. Instead of relying on the two old enemies - the DUP and Sinn Fein - to settle their probably irreconcilable differences, they should learn from Belfast's experience and more fully include the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance - maybe even the Greens and People Before Profit - in future Stormont talks.

Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (

Belfast Telegraph


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