Local councils in Northern Ireland are a joke. They are a ridiculously small size (compared to most other countries) so that more people can live in a council that is controlled by their “side”. The original seven-council plan with real devolution of powers was (despite some questionable boundaries) far preferable to the later insipid eleven- or fifteen-council proposals, which stank of communal carve-up and eventually came to a crashing halt due to a disagreement over the communal balance of Belfast.
If we believe in limited government, we should also believe in decisions being made as close to the citizen as possible. This does not mean that smaller is always better – sometimes economy of scale is inescapable. It is clear that local councils are at present far too small to play any meaningful role, and so increasing their size would (counterintuitively) support localism by allowing real powers to be devolved to them.
Six counties plus Belfast would be more sensible – with Fermanagh either partially or fully merged with Tyrone due to its small population, and with Armagh taking over bordering population centres in West Down (Banbridge and Newry). This has several advantages, not least the historical and cultural legitimacy of using traditional counties as a basis. The number and location of councils would then also match the proposed five or six acute hospitals, giving a possible role for councils in their oversight. This would seem to indicate that such councils would also be the right size for other public-sector oversight roles. They would be large enough to be able to raise and spend meaningful amounts of money on local issues such as rural roads and town centres.
The only significant argument against such an arrangement (and admittedly it is a good one) is that it would lead to one-community control of most councils. This however is already the case in the majority of existing councils. On the other hand, giving one “side” an overwhelming majority may (again counterintuitively) loosen up the political balance within the designations, as it would remove the motivation for block voting to keep themmuns out. With luck, we could eventually see the big parties within one community actively trying to woo voters from the other community to make up the numbers, rather than appealing to the core communal vote.
In order for goodwill to flourish though, local councils should be stripped of all powers in contentious policy areas. For example, currently we have very visible local community fiefdoms where the Irish language (and occasionally Ulster-Scots) is either prominent or completely absent, according to local council makeup. This reinforces segregation into Unionist and Nationalist areas of control. Instead, there should be an overall language and signage policy for all of NI. That does not mean that regional variations cannot be accommodated within such a policy, but it does mean that contentious matters are kept firmly within Stormont’s mutual veto system.
Of course, the danger of this is that nothing contentious ever gets decided, but that’s a problem in any case.
(This post is based on a comment I made a while ago on policyni.com. Normal service will be resumed shortly)