Ireland, Northern Ireland Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

A post-conflict role for local government in Northern Ireland

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In a region where ethno-nationalist conflict has significantly impacted various aspects of society, this article explores the role of Northern Ireland’s (NI) local government in peacebuilding efforts. This article will examine three examples that demonstrate the importance of local government in promoting peace. These examples are providing local leadership during deadlock, building cross-community relations and displaying collaborative and partnership styles of working.

Remarking upon NI’s local governance at the start of the Peace Process, Colin Knox identifies three roles for local government; an executive, a representative, and a consultation. Understanding NI’s local government in this framework, this article looks at these three areas to outline the added importance of local government in a post-conflict society. 

The context of local governance in Northern Ireland

From the late 1960s to 1998, ethno-nationalist conflict in NI claimed the lives of over 3,500 people in a region of only 5,530 sq miles. During this period, distrust of local government stemmed from:

“A fundamental lack of trust in local government and a belief that it cannot fairly and equitably deliver services free from political bias,” according to NI Secretary of State Peter Hain.

Consequently, during the Troubles, local government reform was inextricably linked to the growing political conflict across NI. The reforms introduced in the early 1970’s followed the publication of a review in 1970 led by Patrick Macrory. Introducing a strong centralising tendency over public service delivery, the aim was to reduce the levels of discrimination that were at the heart of grievance. Effectively, the NI/UK Government would exercise functions over housing, planning, education, roads and libraries, with local government being left with minimum responsibilities and a broken-up structure based on district councils rather than the prior county structures.

Fast forwarding from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the present, a reform in 2015 means NI has 11 councils responsible for local planning, waste collection, parks and leisure, economic development, and arts, heritage and cultural facilities. 

1. Executive: Political leadership during deadlocks and crisis

Since 1999, NI’s devolved government has only sat less than 40% of its available time due to political deadlock. In this vacuum, the growing deterioration in public services means that despite the valiant effort of local government and civil servants, February 2024 saw the UK government step in to provide a “cliff-edge” in additional support to alleviate the woes of NI’s public finances.

In this policy vacuum left by the Stormont’s intermittent sitting, local government provides a key role in leadership in advancing policies and working cross-border to secure funding and economic development.  

More broadly, the Covid-19 pandemic is an instructive example of local government’s innovative and community leadership response to a crisis. Working in partnership across the public sector, and with community and voluntary bodies, visible on the ground local government interventions were a determining factor in delivering for communities.

Covered in a NI Audit Overview in 2021, in Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, when non-essential council services were suspended, and significant numbers of staff from the leisure, arts and culture sections were unable to work from home, the council seized the opportunity. Each day, staff attended the Civic Headquarters to be assigned to a specific community group and provide much-needed support on the ground. This initiative had significant mutual benefits, with the staff playing a vital role and the community having access to skilled and committed additional support to aid their efforts. Many of the council staff who were involved have continued working with groups and are now community volunteers.

As the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, Alison Allen, surmises, “from the emergency Covid-19 response in supporting vulnerable residents with food parcels, and the delivery of inaugural community plans, city and growth deals for Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Mid-South West, to finding solutions to the global problems of climate change, councils have been leading the way.”

2. Representative: Opportunities for cross-community relations

Functioning only 40% of the time since 1999, LucidTalk polling data for 2022 illustrates widespread public dissatisfaction with NI’s power-sharing executive. However, whilst the Stormont’s stop-start governance staggers on, councils act as important forums for reconciliation. 

Sidetracking the tribal “us versus them” politics, which defines deadlock at Stormont, councillors often use their role to make inroads with other communities. For one, during periods of conflict in NI, local government was largely the sole democratic forum in which all political parties participated. Moreover, local government was at the forefront of developing power-sharing arrangements with mayors, chairs, committees and cross-border working practices, which is suggested to have made provisions within the Good Friday Agreement more palatable (Birrell 2007).

3. Consultative: Collaborative and partnership working

Knox outlines a consultative role where councils’ views are sought on centrally provided services such as planning, roads, water and housing. A power granted to councils in 2015, Community Planning is a key example of how local government has adopted a sustainable approach to improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing. It requires working practices that include close collaboration, involving communities and citizens in decision-making and action, and evidence-informed policies and programmes. 

As Professor Colin Knox outlined in this recent LGIU member briefing, “the council becomes a ‘junction box’ for the locality, seeking to integrate and join up public service delivery for the benefit of all people, and the long-term success and sustainability of the area. In short, community planning is about improving the quality of life for people living in council areas through public service providers and people working together.”

Looking ahead

Local government alone is not the panacea for the multitude of post-conflict issues facing NI’s society. But at the same time, without accepting local government’s forefront role as custodians of place, the meaningful public sector reform so desperately needed in NI will continue to prove elusive. 

Therefore, this article provides a useful reminder that while Stormont gets back on its feet, now is the time to build on the partnership workings and innovation displayed during Covid-19, by empowering local government to provide a forum for citizens to shape the place where they live and work.   

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