It was announced on Thursday that the Northern Executive has agreed on a compromise proposal to create 11 “super-councils” by 2011.
The plan sets in motion the biggest shake-up in local administration in the Six Counties since the 1970s and will replace the current 26-council system, which a 2005 review recommended be reduced to just seven.
Sinn Féin supported that plan but the other main parties suggested a 15-council model.
It was also feared that system would amount to a “repartition of the North”, with councils in the east dominated by unionists and the reverse situation in the west.
The deal announced on Thursday was seen as an indication of a thaw in relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP, which had appeared to be in trouble earlier in the week.
Under the new system the number of councillors will drop from 562 to 460, and could result in as many as 3,500 job losses.
Reports indicated that the following realignments would take place among the councils: Fermanagh joined with Omagh; Strabane with Derry; Dungannon with Cookstown and Magherafelt; Limavady with Coleraine, Ballymoney and Moyle; Ballymena with Larne and Carrickfergus; Antrim with Newtownabbey; North Down with Ards; Lisburn with Castlereagh; Armagh with Craigavon and Banbridge; Newry and Mourne with Down; and Belfast to remain as it is.
While the Boundary Commission will have the final say on the new local government map, the reported changes link predominately nationalist areas together, particularly in the west and south, while predominately unionist areas are also drawn together, mainly in the north and east.
A key element of the deal was a decision to postpone local elections by two years to 2011. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin faced potentially difficult challenges from hardliners, and will seek to bolster support in the interim.
Safeguards are also to be built in to protect the rights of minorities in the new council areas.
David Ford of the cross-community Alliance Party was highly critical of the decision, describing it as “a tribal carve-up”, and saying the Executive had “squandered their big chance to make local government work more effectively for everyone”.
“This deal is a DUP/Sinn Féin carve-up. If they are not indulging in chuckling, they are taking part in choreographed sham fights. They would be better off making tough but necessary decisions, instead of producing endless quantities of fudge.”
Although Belfast remains unchanged in the plan, the UUP’s Fred Cobain insisted it would “turn Belfast into a nationalist-dominated city”.
“What the Provos couldn’t do in 30 years with bombs and bullets they will do with a stroke of a pen, and that is turning Belfast green,” he said, without explanation. “Belfast is a unionist city and [DUP negotiator] Arlene Foster will turn it from a unionist into a republican and nationalist city. She should be ashamed of herself.”
Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd said the plan was evidence of the Assembly’s stability.
“There have been those who have claimed that the Executive was deadlocked,” Mr O’Dowd said. “Once again the durability of these institutions and the willingness of all the other parties to reach common positions has proven them wrong.”