Northern Secretary Peter Hain drew heavy criticism when he announced wide-ranging plans to shake up local government and public services in Northern Ireland. Referring to a 5,400-square-mile territory populated by 1.7 million people, he declared the North to be “both over-governed and over-administered” with an official system in need of complete overhaul.
The first target is 26 local councils. Hain proposes reducing them to seven larger units. He also proposes restructuring various education and health bodies into single organizations, and although the reforms will lead to job cuts, he estimates annual savings of st.£200 million.
Unionist and nationalist parties reacted angrily to Hain’s proposals, particularly the plan to do away with local councils. DUP leader Rev. Ian Paisley rejected the idea as an effort to “split the province” into east and west by enabling nationalists “to develop their united Ireland policy in the councils that they dominate.”
However, the nationalist SDLP also opposes the reforms. Assembly member Tommy Gallagher agreed it would split the councils outside Belfast along sectarian lines, creating “three green councils and three orange councils and greater segregation in the future.”
The Northern Secretary may not be used to receiving support from republicans but Sinn Féin broadly endorsed Hain’s reform package. Looking ahead to the 2009 elections, the figures suggest that nationalists could overtake the unionist vote in Belfast, thereby clinching four of seven councils.
Hain said the reforms would be phased in over the next four years. Using their expanded powers, the new councils could effectively run local government as an alternative to the stalled Northern Ireland Assembly. Commentators suspect that such a maneuver might be an effort to draw unionists back into dialogue with Sinn Féin so as to restore the Assembly. When asked about a likely backlash to his proposals, Hain responded that if parties “do not like the decisions I have taken, they better get back into government quickly in order to take forward the process of change.” ♦