Is Gerrymandering Back?

Posted By: November 30, 2013

The Belfast columnist examines if gerrymandering, which once afflicted The North so badly, is making a comeback.
“The re-emergence of gerrymandering 
comes in Stormont’s plans to reduce our 
twenty-six local councils to eleven.”


Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, November 30 2013
NEVER mind the Monty Python team getting back together – if you are seeking nostalgia, look no further than Stormont. If you remember the civil rights movement (the real one, not the imaginary ones which the SDLP and Sinn Féin claim to have invented) you will know that much of its campaign fought injustice at local government level. Issues included unfair housing allocation (which has recently re-emerged) and manipulating election results through gerrymandered boundaries.The good news is that gerrymandering is getting back together again, not just for one night, but as a permanently live act in our new local government system. Younger people can now experience the lack of excitement in awaiting a gerrymandered election outcome. (Remember the old joke about someone breaking into the Kremlin and stealing next year’s election results?We’re all in the Kremlin now.)

The re-emergence of gerrymandering comes in Stormont’s plans to reduce our twenty-six local councils to eleven. The existing system is a product of the civil rights movement, based on an independent review of local government in 1970. It took our 26 biggest towns and tried to establish their catchment areas based on social and economic activity patterns. It then defined those areas as our new district councils, responsible for local services such as recreation, environmental health, refuse collection and building control.

At a higher level it identified regional services such as education, health, planning, roads and water, some of which would be administered by area boards. Thus the present system of educational administration, for example, is a product of the civil rights movement, not direct rule. If this system needed reform (and it is an issue which has never been properly debated) the process would begin by examining options for a local/regional division of services, based on efficiency of scale and the role of Stormont. Then it could match council size to this efficiency target to indicate if the 26 major towns should be reduced to ten or fifteen or whatever. The town’s catchment areas could then be determined through social and economic information, including population projections, area plans and infrastructure.

But Stormont does not do science. It decided instead to base the new system on a sectarian carve-up by simply grouping existing councils together. It aims to achieve five nationalist and six unionist councils. Most people would call that old-fashioned gerrymandering. Nostalgia is coming to a town near you.

So whereas, for example, Newry and Downpatrick are now the urban hubs of separate district councils, the new system will place them in the same council – even though they are under two separate health trusts and two education boards.

This new council will include Crossmaglen (south Armagh) and Saintfield (63 miles from Crossmaglen and just 11 miles from Belfast City hall). The AA advises that it takes twenty five minutes less to drive from Crossmaglen to Dublin than to drive from Crossmaglen to Saintfield.

Keady (also south Armagh) will be in the same district council as Craigavon. Cushendall (Antrim) will be in the same area as Dungiven (south Derry) but Maghera (11 miles from Dungiven) will be in the same council area as Fivemiletown, 80 miles away.

These proposals ignore existing regional service patterns, which are determined by individual ministers. So health will still have five trusts and a board (that’s the one which closes down care homes for the elderly) and education will still have five area boards – we think. But planning will transfer to the new councils.

After all, sectarianism without power is pointless. The new structure also ignores the potential for cross-border co-operation at local government level. (Try including Saintfield in a cross-border scheme and see how you get on.)

We appear to have reached a consensus in our society that an efficient system of government and administration is one which keeps politicians happy. Good government now refers to what is good for politicians, not for people. As a result we have been conditioned to rejoice at the process of government, without daring to hope for a rational product.

An administration which is designed for the benefit of political parties and not for efficient government, reflects the old Stormont, which claimed that opposition to it was a threat to peace. The civil rights gains are being slowly eroded by the new Stormont, which says that opposition threatens the peace process.

Where are the civil rights activists in the SDlP and Sinn Féin now? They are hiding under the sectarian bed. But the good news is that Monty Python is alive and well and living in the border town of Saintfield.