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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 17:16 GMT
Sweet and sour reception for ministers

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain got a reasonably polite reception when he announced the government's response to the Review of Public Administration at a Belfast hotel.

But a few hours later, his local government minister Lord Rooker got a rougher ride when setting out the details of the shake-up which will see the current 26 councils reduced to just seven.

The old power-sharing government at Stormont set up the review

Ulster Unionist councillor Arnold Hatch, who chaired the Northern Ireland Local Government Association's group concentrating on the RPA, angrily accused the minister of ignoring most parties' views on the issue.

Only Sinn Fein supported the proposed seven council structure, while NILGA and the rest of the parties opted for 15.

Mr Hatch dismissed the extra powers being offered to the new super councils as insignificant.

Lord Rooker - in fairly pugnacious form - replied that the council budgets would be doubled, so the changes could not be written off.

Another NILGA representative complained about the reduction in councillors from the current 582 to a maximum of 350, only for Lord Rooker to insist he was operating to a people's agenda - not a councillors' agenda.

The government says local politicians should now get used to the idea that the seven council structure is going to be introduced.

But some parties are still talking about trying to overturn it once devolution returns to Stormont.

26 councils reduced to seven super councils
Maximum of 50 councillors per council
Planning responsibility returns to councils
Assembly members not allowed to sit on councils
Councils to devise community plan for delivery of local needs

However, presumably this would require a cross-community vote in any future assembly, and with Sinn Fein wedded to seven councils, this may prove difficult to achieve.

Sinn Fein say they opted for the seven council model because of its efficiency and because it guarantees that minorities will be big enough to hold their own in each council area.

But conspiracy theorists believe they liked the notion of emerging on the winning side over the unionists and the rest.

On the margins of Peter Hain's speech, an interesting drama played itself out as former Belfast mayor Alex Maskey gave Sinn Fein's party line, while the Dungannon councillor and NILGA stalwart Francie Molloy rejected seven councils as a sectarian headcount.

It is not often that Sinn Fein washes its dirty linen in public in this way. Shortly afterwards the BBC learned that Mr Molloy, a veteran republican, had been suspended from the party.

It will be interesting to see how his Sinn Fein colleagues in rural areas react.

Lord Rooker "was in fairly pugnacious form"
Lord Rooker "was in fairly pugnacious form"

The government will now push ahead with its plans for implementing the change.

It is promising legislation to end the dual mandate by which 69 of the current 108 MLAs are also councillors.

However, this law will not be introduced until devolution is restored, so it could be some way off.

The legislation will probably also have to cover the question of safeguards to ensure that minority rights are protected.

Exactly what those might be will be a matter for discussion with the parties.

However, interestingly the Review of Public Administration has published research which implicitly criticises the mechanisms which were introduced at the Stormont assembly.

It rejects councillors designating as unionists or nationalists saying that "does not adequately reflect the increasing diversity of modern societies and cuts across a councillor's primary duty to serve the whole community".

Belfast City Council
The preferred option is to retain Belfast City Council

The research suggests that votes should be taken on the basis of a heavily weighted majority of 75 to 80%.

The paper is being billed as merely a basis for discussion, but these findings clearly raise the question of whether what is good enough for the new councils should be good enough for Stormont.

If that is not enough to keep the politicians busy, there is also the issue of how many Stormont departments should remain for them to ponder.

The fact that the new councils will get extra functions means some departments will lose some of their current responsibilities.

So the continuation of the current 10 devolved departments looks unlikely.

A final thought - if most parties are jumping up and down, unhappy about the radical nature of this review, could that be what ministers want?

With the government still desperate to restore devolution, whoever said direct rule was going to comfortable?

Major reform of local government
22 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Reaction to local government shake-up
22 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
'No threat to Catholic education'
17 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Parties 'must commit to services'
04 May 05 |  Northern Ireland
Red tape spending 'clamp down'
13 Jan 04 |  Northern Ireland
Election marks end of council era
05 Apr 05 |  Northern Ireland

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