News analysis Northern Ireland reforms rock political certainties

1 Dec 05
It is just as well Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain did not expect a warm welcome for his November 22 announcement of a restructuring of the province's public sector based on the three-year Review of Public Administration.

02 December 2005

It is just as well Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain did not expect a warm welcome for his November 22 announcement of a restructuring of the province's public sector based on the three-year Review of Public Administration.

It's 'a sectarian carve-up', said both the Ulster Unionists' Jim Wilson and the Democratic Unionists' William McCrea. It's 'repartition', added Alliance Party leader David Ford, pointing out that councils in the east of the province will emerge politically orange and those in the west green.

Social Democratic and Labour Party councillor Helen Quigley, a vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, echoed the sentiments. 'It will increase community tension and further polarise Northern Ireland,' she said. Veteran Sinn Fein councillor Francie Molloy, another Nilga vice-president, made the opposition seem unanimous. 'The review has left local government weak, remote and under-represented,' he said, adding that it would produce 'a sectarian head-count'.

Beyond the sound bites, though, the reaction to the replacement of 26 district councils by seven 'super councils' was more complex. It soon emerged that Molloy was breaking his party's line; he is now suspended by Sinn Fein pending a disciplinary hearing.

Sinn Fein general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin told Public Finance: 'We commend the report from the British government and urge them to keep their nerve. We went for the seven-council option. That provides the most efficient configuration and recognises the peculiarities and demographics of this region. It is the best model for fair and equal treatment and best value for the delivery of services.'

The SDLP and Ulster Unionists are genuinely strongly opposed to the cut in council numbers and in councillors from 582 to 350. The parties risk being increasingly marginalised in Northern Ireland politics. Although the DUP is concerned that its supporters in the west could find themselves in nationalist-controlled councils, privately they might be satisfied that they are likely to dominate three eastern councils. The other council, Belfast City, will likely be hung, at least in the short term.

Presently, councils control just 2.8% of devolved spending. When the review is implemented in 2009 they will assume local responsibility for planning, regeneration, roads management, tourism promotion and economic development – doubling their control of public expenditure.

The cuts in the health service could yield the greatest efficiency gains. Five health trusts will replace 18, the four regional health boards will become a single strategic authority, and the central Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will be slimmed down. A recent review of Northern Ireland's health service by Professor John Appleby of the King's Fund found that the province had poor outcomes in waiting lists and waiting times, but more because of high overheads than underfunding.

Education is also to be rationalised, with a single authority replacing five regional education and library boards. Some employment responsibilities will be taken on by the education authority – which is worrying the state-funded Catholic schools and voluntary grammars, which fear a loss of independence.

This is not the end of the road for the RPA. An unscheduled second phase of announcements is to be made in March, to cut back the 150 or so quangos that run much of the public sector. The review saw limited prospects for cuts in the quangos, so ministers are likely to have told it to come up with more ambitious proposals.

Hain has also let it be known that although the RPA excluded government departments, some will go – probably reducing the number from 11 to eight or so. This would deliver a key DUP demand, while the council reorganisation has provided what Sinn Fein wants.

Perhaps the big question now is whether the review's findings will be fully implemented. There is a general perception that some of the direct rule ministers' announcements are designed to force the unionists back into government. If you don't like our decisions, then you take the responsibility, Hain seems to be saying.

And one leading DUP member predicted to Public Finance that the devolved executive and assembly will be back up and running within a year.

But ministers have said they will see this reform through. And with the DUP and Sinn Fein each winning the outcomes they most want, that might be a result the two largest parties can live with.


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