Progressive Belfast shows the quarrelsome North a way forward

Depression over the latest failure by the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree a formula for the return of power sharing in the North has been my dominant emotion over the past fortnight. However I was not at all surprised, having been told by a leading unionist commentator and several former loyalist paramilitary leaders on the day after Theresa May and Leo Varadkar’s pointless visit to Belfast on 12th February that the negotiations were about to fail, largely over the proposed Irish Language Act – they duly collapsed a few hours later.  How on earth the Irish government was “taken completely by surprise” (the Irish Times quoting”senior sources”) by the DUP’s decision to pull out of those talks baffles me. As an ordinary, if well-informed citizen, I knew about this 24 hours before my government.

This month, for a change, I am going to tell a rare political good news story from the North: how Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through the kind of relatively harmonious inter-party relationships that appear to be almost completely absent from the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly’s mistrust-fuelled proceedings.

In the 1980s, when I was an Irish Times reporter in the city, Belfast City Council’s meetings were notorious for sectarian squabbling and hate-mongering: for endless DUP calls to ban Sinn Fein; Sinn Fein descriptions of the Union flag as the ‘butcher’s apron’; proceedings sometimes having to be suspended for fear of physical violence; and even one DUP councillor, George Seawright (afterwards expelled from the party and later killed by a fringe republican group), calling for the ‘incineration’ of Catholics who objected to the British national anthem. At one meeting in 1985 I listened to that arch-Brexiteer and climate change denier Sammy Wilson, soon to become the DUP’s first Lord Mayor (and, astonishingly, now also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council), condemning the council’s project to build a concert hall (which turned out to be its most inspired public investment of the past 30 years) as “a fraud, a white elephant, with no prospect of enriching this city.”

As late as 1993 the SDLP were saying in their local election manifesto that “Belfast has become a by-word for sectarian, obstructionist politics of a kind that most of us, of whatever political persuasion, hoped we had seen the last of 20 years ago.”

Fast forward a quarter of a century to Belfast City Council today. What a transformation!  No single party – or, more important, coalition of unionist or nationalist parties – has a majority. Sinn Fein holds 19 of the 60 seats, the DUP 13 and Alliance 8. Smaller numbers are held by the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, the left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party, the Greens and People Before Profit.

This multiplicity of parties has put deal-making at the heart of the council’s business, a process which as often as not involves the more centrist parties, and is reflected in the compromise decisions which are the stuff of the city’s politics. At its two most powerful committees – the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee and the City Growth and Regeneration Committee – officials work hard to persuade the councillors to reach agreement by consensus. 80% of the time they succeed and decisions do not have to go to a vote of the full council.

One senior official says that some time in the past 15-20 years most councillors, including those from the DUP and Sinn Fein, realised that the best way to provide efficient public services to Belfast’s citizens was by agreement. They use a Party Leaders Forum and other informal working groups, where the politicians and city officials have preliminary discussions and try to iron out any difficult issues.  “They realise they will get nothing done if they vote on purely tribal lines,” says this man. He says Belfast has been blessed with very effective chief executives over the past two decades, notably Peter McNaney and the current chief executive Suzanne Wylie, backed up by excellent staff. He pays tribute to the councillors, most of whom live in the communities they represent, for a common “willingness to compromise to get things done for those communities”.

Unlike in the past, committee memberships, committee chairs and other post of responsibility, and council appointments to outside public bodies, are decided by extremely complex and ultra-fair European voting systems like D’Hondt and Sainte-Lague. The days of the Ulster Unionist monolith automatically handing out jobs to their cronies are a bad and distant memory. Unlike in the Northern Ireland Assembly, no councillor is required to define herself or himself in sectarian terms as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. There are no petitions of concern to stymie decision making. For most of the time councillors’ minds are focused on practical services to their constituents, rather than divisive national or tribal issues like flags and language and legacies of the past. The wave of loyalist violence following the council’s 2012 decision to fly the Union flag on only 17 days a year – in line with practice elsewhere in the UK – gave the council an entirely unfair image of continued deep division over such issues.

What seems to have happened rather is that the overall politics of Belfast City Council have become more progressive and less conservative in the past decade or so. There is a greater degree of agreement – sometimes in united opposition to the DUP – among the majority of the parties: whether they’re republican or social democratic or progressive (e.g. Alliance and the small Progressive Unionist Party). For example in 2015 the council voted in support of marriage equality. Another crucial change is that the council now has more women (over a third compared to under 10% 20 years ago) and more younger members.

The council has set up the Shared City Partnership to involve business, trade union, church, voluntary sector, social care and housing groups in advising it on taking forward its Good Relations (i.e. relations between Protestant, Catholic and other communities) policies for Belfast. It has worked hard – if not always entirely successfully – to keep the problem of 11th July bonfires in loyalist areas under control. It has persuaded loyalist groups, in particular, to replace intimidating paramilitary murals with more muted representations of that culture and community.

In all this, the Alliance Party, as the third largest on the council (with eight out of 60 seats, compared with eight out of 90 in the Northern Ireland Assembly) has played a key role. One of its younger councillors, Emmet McDonough-Brown, puts it like this:

“Our view is that the broader the consensus between the parties, and the wider the civic conversation among the people of Belfast, the more stable any agreement, and the more effective and long-lasting any outcome, will be.

“No party has overall control of the council so Sinn Fein and the DUP can achieve nothing on their own: they have to engage with the other parties. Alliance often finds it is holding the balance of power: a strong and privileged position. We will work with both the DUP and Sinn Fein depending on the issue. That gives us a chance to advance our core aim: to build a shared and reconciled city.”

“Sinn Fein and the DUP are still the largest parties, but there are lots of people in the city – young people, women, minority ethnic groups in particular – who fall outside that duopoly.  We are committed to giving those people a voice. In our view anybody who chooses to make Belfast their home is an equal citizen. It’s a good position to be in – that there are people coming in from outside who want to make Belfast their home. It’s not so long ago that large numbers of people just wanted to get out of it. We are now perceived as being more generous and attractive than we would have thought.”

There is a lesson here for the British and Irish governments. Instead of relying on the two old enemies, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to settle their probably irreconcilable differences, they should learn from Belfast’s experience and more fully include the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance – and maybe even the Greens and People Before Profit – in future Stormont talks.

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