Monday 26 January 2009

The Curious Case of the Eleven Councils

The Review of Public Administration examined a number of different options for the geographic amalgamation of Northern Ireland's current 26 districts into a smaller, and more efficient, number. In 2005, on the basis of the research presented, the British direct rule Minister announced that the optimum number was seven. The proposal was welcomed by, amongst others, INVEST NI and Sinn Féin. It was opposed, however, by the other three big political parties. Sinn Féin felt that the seven council model would 'deliver savings to ratepayers and will guarantee an equal rates burden across Northern Ireland,' and 'ensure minority rights because in each area the minority community, be it nationalist or unionist, will constitute at least 25% of the population'.

The issue became a political football around at the time of the restoration of the Executive in 2007, with Sinn Féin strongly defending its position. However, barely a year later, Sinn Féin simply abandoned their position, and agreed with a DUP proposal to promote an eleven council model. As reported by the BBC:

"The Stormont Executive has agreed a plan to cut Northern Ireland's local authorities from 26 to 11 by 2011. The DUP and Sinn Fein said the compromise plan, passed by seven votes to two, would build a firm foundation for strong local government. It creates four nationalist-dominated councils in the west and south, and six predominantly unionist councils in the north, east and centre. The UUP was the only party in the Executive to oppose the plan."

Sinn Féin could have blocked the change to the 11-Council model, by insisting on a cross-community vote. But they did not, and acquiesced to the DUP's proposal. By so doing, they actually reduced both the area and the population of the districts that would have come under nationalist control, and consigned a greater number of nationalists to life under unionist political domination. The dividing line between the 'green' west and the 'orange' east would have been a line from Dundrum Bay to Magilligan Point.

The Seven Council Proposal:

Under the original 7-Council model there would have been three districts with nationalist majorities, three with unionist majorities, and one – Belfast – where neither block would have a clear majority. On the basis of the 2005 local election results, some 62,000 nationalist voters would have found themselves in unionist-majority districts, and some 120,000 unionists would have found themselves in nationalist-controlled areas.

By agreeing to the 11-Council model, Sinn Féin (and the SDLP, it should be said) has ensured that Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Limavady fall under unionist control, when they would have been nationalist controlled under the 7-Council model. The only 'gain' for nationalism is Down district, which would have been unionist-dominated in the 7-Council model, but joins with nationalist Newry in the 11-Council alternative. Under the 11-Council model the number of nationalist voters living under unionist control would increase to 83,000. The number of unionists under nationalists would, however, fall to 76,000.

The Eleven Council Proposal:

In terms of the total numbers of voters (unionist and nationalist) living in areas controlled by the opposite persuasion, the 11-Council model is better – 160,000 as against 180,000 in the 7-Council model. But the balance within these groups is more favourable to nationalists under the 7-Council model. And surely another compromise could have been found that would have ensured that south Derry, Armagh City, Crossmore and Down could have stayed in nationalist controlled Councils, while letting Banbridge, Cusher, The Orchard, and other unionist areas, stay in unionist controlled Councils. Even if this appeared like re-partition, it would have satisfied more people than either of the other proposals. But if Sinn Féin were only interested in accepting one of the two main proposals, why did they choose the one least favourable for nationalists?

So why did Sinn Féin do it? Why did they abandon an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the dubious pleasure of unionist rule? What can they say to the residents of Armagh and south Derry whose areas will fall under the anti-nationalist control of unionists from Coleraine or Portadown? How will they explain why the advances achieved by Limavady, in terms of recognition of an Irish identity, will be rolled back? Why did they not insist, as a minimum requirement for a deal to move to an 11-Council model, that the Councils would have a statutory obligation if neutrality in terms of symbols, emblems and flags?

One possible, though cynical, explanation is that Sinn Féin are content to consign an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the petty irritations of unionist rule in order to radicalise them. A satisfied nationalist, living in a district where parity of esteem and power-sharing at local level are taken for granted, is less likely to vote for Sinn Féin than a voter whose aspirations and identity are blocked at every turn by unionists.

A less cynical explanation is that Sinn Féin intent to use their blocking power to ensure that all of the eleven councils do provide a neutral environment and parity of esteem, when the legislation establishing them comes before the Executive. Mandatory power-sharing in all eleven councils, along with strict equality-proofing in terms of symbolism, could make the 11-Council option a price worth paying. However, since these things would have been equally possible in the 7-Council model, this explanation may not be correct. Perhaps this was all just part of a larger deal, but the quid pro quo is, as yet, missing.


Anonymous said...

I see you have deleted the 'ulters doomed' page. Lol

Quite embarrassing if you ask me

Horseman said...

No, I deleted the blog on the Lisburn Council vacancy following some clarification of the situation. Not remotely embarrassing at all, actually.

Keep reading!

Anonymous said...

Was just looking for that story on Slugger it seems to alsi have gone from there - no by-election?

Horseman said...

If it turns out that Arder Carson was correctly co-opted onto Lisburn City Council then there will be no by-election. The situation on Tuesday seems to have been a little confusing (though perhaps this is the normal practice in Lisburn?). I am awaiting some clarity, and if there is more to say on this, you'll read it here!

Anonymous said...


thanks for that - I have left 2 other comments on other threads which you have not replied to.

Firstly in relation to North Belfast there seems to be virtaully no movement in the Unionist % vote between the last 2 assembly elections - which is strange given the demographics.

Secondly, the number of new (net?) voters reigstered in West Belfast is far smaller than any other constituency even though the demographic profile is below average ie younger profile.

Horseman said...

Lisburn Council now say that "Cllr Arthur Carson was elected by co-option on Tuesday 27 January 2009". So that's over then - nothing more to report! (Pity, of course, I like a good election)

To Anonymous, sorry if I missed some of your messages - I don't know which ones they were, of course, because almost every comment here is from an 'anonymous'. If you gave yourself a name I would know.

On NB, I agree that things seem to have gone flat there, but I wonder if the last Assembly election didn't coincide with the great Electoral Register clean-out? A lot of people may have been lost as names were removed and it was harder to register. Now, however, the rules have been simplified again, so we may see an increase in the electorate in NB, with some interesting results.

WB is also strange, and I cannot really think of a good reason. It may be that potential voters are less motivated as the outcome is pretty much certain. I'll continue to watch it, of course, and hope that someone somewhere comes up with the explanation.

Faha said...

Jude Collins wrote an excellent article on the new 11 District Councils in the March 21st 2007 issue of the Belfast Telegraph. He praised Arelene Foster of the DUP for the brilliant plan she created for the 11 District Councils. One of his main points was that there would be 165,000 Catholics ( 2001 census ) living within unionist dominated councils under the 7 Coucnil plan and 252,000 Catholics living within unionist dominated Councils under the 11 Council plan.
Indeed, it is not possible to geographically devise a 11 council plan that could be more favourable to unionists . Arlene Foster probably had some experts on demography and the 2001 census advising her. Jude Collins theorized that Sinn Fein either were very poor negotiators or that they were to recieve major concessions from the DUP ( ? devolution of Police and Justice ). However, since 3 months later Sinn Fein was threatening to collapse the Assmbly over the failure of the DUP to agree to devolution of Police and Justice this could not be the case. Since no other obvious concessions from the unionists have appeared since then it appears to be poor negotiating and lack of demographic knowledge by Sinn Fein. Incidentally, Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP was in Washington at the time and probably was unable to do a thorough analysis or the DUP took advantage of the fact that her constituency of Down was to be removed from a unionist dominated council in the 7 council plan and put into a nationalist majority council under the 11 council plan. Nevertheles, the DUP should be admired for their strategy, a strategy that they inherited from their ancestors who partitioned Ireland to create a Northern Ireland that maximized the number of unionists that would be living in Northern Ireland while not threatening the existence of Northern Ireland by including too many Catholics from the Ulster counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan.

Horseman said...


Thanks for that. I've just googled that article and it's uncanny how much it matches my own thinking. I hadn't read it before, as far as I know. I'm almost two years behind Jude!

oak leaf boy said...


On a point of accuracy, under the eleven-council model, practically of south derry (with the exception of Kilrea and its environs)lies within the mainly nationalist Mid Ulster Council area.

Oak Leaf Boy

Horseman said...

Oak Leaf Boy,

You are right, of course, for the true south of the county, but I include the Dungiven area as 'south' - maybe I should have said 'mid county Derry'?