Irish Republican News · October 29, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Unionists falling into the minority

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

The leaks about the reform of local administration here are coming thick and fast. Let's hope most of them are correct. Why do we need more than one Education and Library Board? Come to think of it, why do we need any Education and Library Boards when there are two departments of education up at Stormont, the Department of Education, DENI, and the Department of Employment & Learning, DELNI, with thousands of civil servants staffing them?

As for hospital trusts, what an incredible waste of public money, typical of the last unlamented Conservative government and its nonsense ideology about operating market forces in the public sector.

As the number of hospitals in the north declined inexorably, the number of hospital trusts stayed constant.

Just think of the number of teachers, doctors, nurses and care-workers of various kinds who could be employed if the completely unnecessary layers of bureaucracy were wiped out and the money they lavish on themselves and their offices allocated elsewhere.

It's only this year that someone noticed there are more civil servants in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs than there are farmers in England and Wales. It would be interesting to know if there are more civil servants in the north's Department of Agriculture & Rural Development than there are farmers in the north. That's only the local civil service, never mind any mention of the bloated NIO which acts like a baleful incubus on the whole north. So maybe the announcement of 2,000 civil service jobs going will have a real effect on front line services here.

All wishful thinking of course. None of it will happen for the very simple reason that the people who would have to take the decisions are all civil servants. Don't kid yourself that pro-tem British ministers have any idea what's needed, or care either. No, the one certainty about any administrative reform is that institutions may be reduced in number but the smaller number never ends up with fewer administrators.

The one hopeful arena where there will be genuine reform, and that's because it doesn't affect the civil service, in fact even enhances the NIO's role, is district councils.

UTV managed to get its hands on the most plausible proposals, not only for the number of councils but also for new boundaries: Belfast and Derry with five others.

A helluva drop from 26, but long overdue.

The only reason for 26 was because originally the Unionists had established 73 – honestly – to ensure they had an iron grip on every parish pump in the north. The other reason for the ridiculous number was to create the impression that the north was a state requiring a vast system of local infrastructure, whereas of course it’s smaller than Greater Manchester with fewer people than Manchester itself.

In any case, a drop from 73 to a realistic figure like half a dozen would have been too much for poor old Unionists to stomach.

As it is, Unionists will fight the latest proposals tooth and nail. Peter Robinson has already fired a salvo. In a classic statement of the bleeding obvious he pointed out that Belfast and Derry councils would have nationalist majorities as would the proposed new councils west of the Bann, leaving Unionists with a guaranteed majority in only two councils and a possible majority in a third.

The truth is it’s difficult to come up with a configuration which produces a different result.

The polarisation of the last 35 years boosted by Drumcree-linked unionist violence in the mid to late 1990s has led to a reinforcement of the traditional east and west of Bann divide. Any arrangement of council boundaries has to be based on electoral wards and linked to parliamentary boundaries.

The fact that only one Unionist MP is based west of the Bann reveals the stark reality that there is a clear Unionist majority in only two counties of the six.

To achieve a better result for Unionists, the only alternative would be to devise council boundaries shaped like snow-flakes, each one a bewildering pattern, just like old times.

Snag is, Unionists are no longer in control. The good oul’ gerrymandering days are gone.

The precarious nature of their hold on the north is cruelly exposed.

Boundaries are one thing, but there has to be legislation which will force Unionists to behave themselves in the small number of councils they can still disgrace, a law to require all councils to use the d’Hondt system to elect leaders and committee chairs.

It’s compulsory at Stormont, so why not locally? Answer: the only reason we don’t have such a law is that senior officials in the NIO won't tell our proconsul he must do it.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News