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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 November 2005, 11:05 GMT
'Bully boy' tactics or better service?

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

So was the decision to slash Northern Ireland's councils from 26 to seven, "bully boy tactics" by the government to push unionists into sharing power with Sinn Fein?

Or was it simply "the optimum for service delivery" to ratepayers?

The first description is the view of the Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey.

Peter Hain
Peter Hain announced the changes to government structures

The second is the technocratic language chosen by Secretary of State Peter Hain.

The decision was undoubtedly dramatic, flying in the face of the views of four of the five major parties, with only Sinn Fein supporting the government.

The usual process of political haggling would have been expected to end in a compromise somewhere between the seven-council model favoured by the team behind the Review of Public Administration and the 15 councils backed by most of the parties.

Indeed, speaking on the BBC's Inside Politics programme Peter Hain's predecessor, Paul Murphy, revealed this was exactly the line he had been thinking along - something between 11 and 15 councils.

Instead, Mr Hain took the radical path by opting for seven.

The implicit message seems to be that if the local parties don't like it they should hurry up and get hold of the levers of power themselves.

If so, Michael McGimpsey claims this is a futile exercise - his leader Sir Reg Empey says Peter Hain should have sought the "wise counsel" of Paul Murphy.

So is the die cast?

The local government minister, Lord Rooker, says councils should get used to the reality that seven is now the future.

He wants them to start planning jointly with their near neighbours any future projects involving capital investment, and warns that ratepayers won't thank any existing councils which indulge in illogical spending sprees.

But, interestingly, Lord Rooker would not answer a colleague who enquired whether any legislation required for the council shake-up would go through a future assembly or through Westminster.

Belfast City Council
Belfast City Council is retained in the sweeping changes

At first hearing this question may sound academic, but it could prove crucial.

The government has promised legislation to abolish the dual mandate of councillors and MLAs "following the restoration of devolution".

Will any legal changes required to merge 26 councils into seven also come after the assembly is up and running?

If so such a law would surely be a devolved matter to be dealt with by the restored assembly.

Presuming the parties don't shift their current stances on local government, any attempt to start the process of legislating for the merger in the assembly would not get off the ground, because the dearth of unionist support would deny it cross community consensus.

However, if the legal process was already in train it would be extremely hard to stop it as Sinn Fein would be able to block any attempt at a legislative U turn.

Soon the government will press ahead with appointing a local government Boundary Commissioner to examine the suggested new council borders.

'Contentious task'

Interestingly, Lord Rooker predicted that the Belfast council area would "expand in future to recognise the natural growth of the city and its boundaries".

That sounds a harmless enough aspiration but it will raise eyebrows amongst those interested to see whether any changes will alter the current 50/50 unionist/nationalist split in Belfast City Hall.

Take a chunk to the south and west, and the city gets greener, take a chunk to the north and it could get more orange.

How can you, as the government does, "expect the commissioner ...to develop more natural boundaries for the population who see themselves as living within the city area", without taking in large swathes of east Belfast, hitherto the main part of Castlereagh council?

If you don't, then you aren't really dealing with a natural city.

But if you do, Belfast would surely become unionist once more, upsetting the careful balance of three green, three orange and one "hung" council achieved by last week's announcement.

Defining Belfast could prove a contentious task for the new Boundary Commissioner.

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