A N. Ireland City Offers a Preview of How Assembly May Work
Londonderry shares power - exactly what the politicians elected yesterday must do.
LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND
Anyone wanting to see how Northern Ireland's new assembly may operate could look at the Londonderry City Council.
For nearly two decades, nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to reunite with the Irish Republic, have been in a majority on the council. But unionists, who want to remain part of Britain, have had significant political input.
Unionists have also had a share of the spoils of power, including the mayor's office. This is largely due to the efforts of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), led by John Hume. The SDLP, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, is also the largest party on the council. It has used its position to ensure that no party dominates in Londonderry. A recent editorial in the Belfast-based daily Irish News noted that the city "has given a lead to other councils through its power-sharing arrangements."
It is hoped the new 108-seat Northern Ireland assembly, elected yesterday, will operate along similar lines to the Londonderry Council (nationalists prefer to call the city Derry). Unlike in the last parliament here, abolished by the British government in 1972 and dominated by unionists, neither of the two communities in Northern Ireland will be able govern alone in the new assembly.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, is expected to become the First Minister of Northern Ireland should the UUP win the most seats. The Deputy First Minister is likely to be a nationalist, Mr. Hume of the SDLP. A 12-member group will also be chosen to head the departments of government and cooperate with the Irish Republic on issues of mutual concern. Ballots will be counted today and possibly tomorrow to determine how many seats each party has won. More than a dozen parties and 296 candidates are participating.
The Belfast agreement on the future of Northern Ireland, which was agreed on April 10 and ratified in a referendum May 22, sets out consensus-based rules to govern the new assembly. The agreement states the assembly will be "subject to safeguards to protect the rights and interests of all sides of the community."
The difficulties that emerge in sharing power in Northern Ireland, however, recently became apparent in the Londonderry Council. Until this month, the top two positions had never been held by members of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army, and the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by the Rev. Ian Paisley.
The new mayor is Joe Miller, a DUP member who has been on the Londonderry Council since 1989. The DUP refuses to deal with Sinn Fein in any way.
His family was in attendance at the Guildhall, which houses the council, when he was elected mayor earlier this month. However, their joy was short-lived when the SDLP used its voting bloc to ensure the election of Sinn Fein's Lynn Fleming as deputy mayor.
"I am an ex-policeman, and it cannot be easy for an ex-policeman to work with a Sinn Fein deputy mayor," Mr. Miller said afterward. He strongly considered resigning, calling Ms. Fleming "a person related to the IRA."
Fleming comes from a strongly republican family. Several of her relatives died in gun battles with the British security forces. She has refused to comment on the controversy, saying only that she "wants to get on with her job as deputy mayor."
Replies Miller, "I will not be treating Lynn Fleming any different to how I treated her before she became deputy mayor. I have no contact with her, and I want no contact with her. One thing I will say is that she will not represent me at any function which I cannot attend."
The Irish News commented that the two highest officeholders in Londonderry "may be political opponents, but there is no reason why they should not be able to establish some form of working relationship."
It is such calls for cooperation that drive Mr. Trimble and Hume, who hope to share power in the new assembly despite their different political aspirations. "There is no quick fix, no magic formula, which is why the assembly elected on June 25 is only a beginning," says UUP leader Trimble, while SDLP leader Hume promises to "ensure equality in the new system."