27 November 2005

Unionists furious over ‘re-partitioning’ of the North

Sunday Business Post

27 November 2005
By Colm Heatley

Almost 90 years after Michael Collins put forward the idea that unionism could be dealt a fatal blow by redrawing the border to make the North too small to be viable, unionists have accused the British government of 'repartitioning' the North to favour nationalists.

The government has proposed a radical restructuring of the North's system of local government, which would reduce the number of councils from 26 to seven, cut the number of councillors from 600 to 350 and strengthen the powers of councils.

The controversial seven council model will evenly split local government power between unionists and nationalists.

The three councils west of the river Bann will be nationalist controlled, the three east of the Bann will be in unionist hands and Belfast council will be almost evenly split between unionists and nationalists.

An alternative 15 council model favoured by the SDLP and unionists would have left nine councils in unionist hands and six in nationalist control.

The proposal's opponents have claimed it will ‘balkanise' the North by creating an invisible border dividing west and east. But, the plan's supporters said it reflects the North's demographics.

DUP MP Peter Weir, said his party felt there was an element of re-partitioning behind the proposals.

“Undoubtedly this will ‘balkanise' Northern Ireland and there is a suspicion that the province is being redrawn to suit a different agenda,” he said.

“We now have a nationalist bloc of councils west of the Bann.”

Sinn Féin is the only party backing the plans. The SDLP and unionist parties have argued the plan will create a democratic deficit in the North at the expense of isolated rural communities.

Under the plans, councils in rural areas will make decisions for a district including urban centres such as Derry, Portadown and Ballymena.

The SDLP has said it also opposes the proposed increase in powers because of the refusal of unionist-dominated councils, such as Ballymena, to share power with nationalists.

But Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey said the seven council model was the fairest.

“Under the seven councils, the minority, whether they be unionist or nationalist, will have around 25 per cent representation which will give them access to decision-making positions,” he said.

Meanwhile, a single health authority will replace the four health boards and a single education authority will replace the five education boards, which serve the North.

The British government expects the move to save around stg£200million per year. However, that figure is some way short of the North's estimated annual deficit of stg£5 billion.

The Northern Ireland Federation of Small Business welcomed the proposals. Around 68 per cent of the North's economic activity revolves around the public sector, compared with 38 per cent in the Republic, and the federation hopes the reduction of public government will lead to more scope for private enterprise.

But there has been no indication as to the number of job losses there will be in the public sector and the trade union, Unison said it was anxious because the British government had given no guarantees on the issue.

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