Monday 28 April 2008

District Council elections to be postponed until 2011

So it's official now. The elections to the District Councils, which should have been held in 2009, will be postponed until 2011.

Assuming no upsets along the way, this means that the 11 new District Councils, which will replace the current 26, will start working in three years. The precise boundaries of the new councils have not yet been fixed (though a strong hint has already been given), nor has the number of councillors each will have (Minister Foster proposed an upper limit (460), which will, inevitably, become the accepted outcome). One thing is almost inevitable, though; there will have to be fewer councillors than at present (There are currently 582 district councillors).

This means that 2011 is going to be a very important electoral year in Northern Ireland, because the next elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are also due then. Normally District Council elections are held on different dates to other elections (2005 was an exception), to avoid voter confusion, and perhaps also to make the job more manageable for the Electoral Office. However, by holding the elections on different dates, there is always a risk that the second election will suffer from a lower turn-out, and will receive less public attention. On the other hand, it would give politicians who fail to get elected in the first election a second chance – the 'dual mandate' (i.e. the practice of combining a councillorship with other elected posts) is to be abolished, forcing politicians to decide where they really want to sit. Nothing, however, would stop them seeking election to the higher level, and then if elected resigning from the lower body, but the multitude of by-elections that this would cause is reason enough to space out the elections.

2011 will be an entirely Northern Irish election-fest. The two elections to be held then are Northern Ireland-wide, but have no relevance outside that jurisdiction. There will be no 'interference' caused by extra-Northern Ireland factors, such as those created by Westminster and European elections. The schedule of European elections is fixed (2009 and 2014, following its five-year cycle), and while Westminster is not fixed, there must be an election by 2010 at the latest, and only extreme political instability would provoke another in 2011. So in 2011 Northern Ireland is going to be convulsed by extremely divisive elections, at a point in time where the two principal blocks (nationalist and unionist) are coming ever-closer to parity. The outcomes of the two elections will have strong, and lasting, impacts on the shape of Northern Irish politics for years.

The 2011 Assembly elections will be the first opportunity the unionist electorate will have to express its approval or disapproval of the DUP for entering government with Sinn Féin. Of course, the three years from now till then may go well, or extremely badly – we have to wait and see. Perhaps Peter Robinson, after taking over as DUP leader in June will turn out to be constructive and businesslike. Or not. Perhaps the length of time will have dimmed unionist memories (and antagonism) vis-à-vis Sinn Féin. Perhaps Sinn Féin will stall, or show itself unsuited to governmental power. Or not. By 2011 we will also know if Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) is going to become a force in unionism – if he does well in the 2009 European election then the DUP will start worrying about 2011. But if the TUV crashes, the DUP will be able to approach 2011 as pragmatic politicians rather than tribal champions.

A scare already being promoted by some unionists (including some in the media) is that the St Andrews Agreement opens the way for Sinn Féin to nominate the First Minister if it has more seats than the DUP. This factor should lead to a lot of unionist angst in the run-up to the election, but will probably mean that unionists will plump for the DUP (as, indeed, was the intention of the rules, according to many observers).

The 2011 District Council elections will set the pattern for the carve-up of power at local level. The new District Councils will, according to the Minister responsible, have real powers; but these may be subject to cross-community distribution (via a version of the D'Hondt system – which, ironically the Minister's own party do not like). At present, everything is still uncertain, but there seems to be little chance that when the smoke clears in 2011 Northern Ireland will not have a new sectarian dividing line between east and west. There is no way that a map of the District boundaries could be gerrymandered to avoid such a divide, and if a DUP Minister tried to push through a blatant gerrymandering, it would be blocked by the nationalist veto.

In Northern Ireland all politics are local, and all concern, to some extent or another, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The European election in 2009 will be just a warm-up for most parties. The electorate is less interested in the European Parliament than in other legislatures, and the turn-out is usually lower than in other elections. While politicians and election-watchers will be interested, the general public will not be much concerned by the outcome. The Westminster election, which will come either in 2009 or 2010, will be of greater interest, but since the Northern Irish MPs are unlikely to have any power at Westminster the interest will be less intense. The heat will build up, therefore, for 2011 – two elections for bodies with perceived power and influence. No less importantly, only 3 seats are on offer in 2009's European election (and with barely 10 candidates likely); only 18 in 2009/2010's Westminster election (and probably only 100 candidates); but in 2011 there will be 568 seats on offer, and probably several thousand candidates. On a purely human level, 2011 means a lot more to everyone in Northern Ireland.

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