06 December 2005

U-turn sought over plans for seven councils

Belfast Telegraph

Parties urge Rooker to think again

By Noel McAdam
06 December 2005

A clash over the Government's creation of seven councils across Northern Ireland was on the cards today.

Direct rule minister Lord Rooker was today expected to face the anger of DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance members opposed to the radical blueprint.

The cross-party council leaders were holding their first meeting with the Government since the decision to form seven councils from the present 26 was announced.

In their first salvo against the direct rule team, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) urged Lord Rooker to think again.

And they were due to demand the minister sets up a joint meeting with them and party leaders before Christmas to see if the seven-council verdict can be reversed.

SDLP NILGA vice-president Helen Quigley said: "It is not appropriate for direct rule ministers to come into Northern Ireland, albeit for a short-term period, just to simply split the province.

"We will stand strong and united to prevent this from happening."

Only Sinn Fein, among the major parties, is in favour of the seven-council model, a stance which has lead to the suspension of senior member Francie Molloy, a former NILGA president, who shares its view in favour of 15 councils.

Today's meeting with Lord Rooker comes after discussions last week between NILGA and party representatives who agreed to "work together in the coming months to ensure the seven-council model is overturned and a more democratic system is put in place".

NILGA chief executive Heather Moorehead said after the suspension of Dungannon councillor Molloy, no substitute nomination was made and no Sinn Fein representative was present.

Alliance leader David Ford attended, however, along with DUP MP William McCrea, SDLP MLA Tommy Gallagher and UUP MLA David McClarty.

Mr McCrea said he feared the £235m projected savings from the review will not be realised and had been flagged up to gain public sympathy.

It would also amount to a "carve up" along sectarian lines, with three unionist-controlled councils in the east of the province and three nationalist-dominated councils in the west along with a keenly-balanced Belfast - which would have the potential to be politically explosive, he added.

Mrs Quigley, a Londonderry councillor, also argued that Secretary of State Peter Hain's denial that the seven-council model will not lead to a "sectarian carve-up" was "scandalous and irresponsible".

"He should take note of the vast majority of opinions and concerns expressed by citizens at a local level who now realise that the seven-council model is not practical," she added.

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