Northern Ireland’s 11 new councils are free to abandon protections for political minorities as the regulations to enforce them have been deferred by the Assembly. The Local Government (Standing Orders) Regulations were brought forward by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan in February but were blocked by a DUP petition of concern.
In recent years, unionist and nationalist representatives have called for formal safeguards for their constituents after contentious decisions on flags, place names, remembrance and the Irish language.
The Local Government Act, introduced in September 2013, allows for a ‘call-in procedure’ whereby 15 per cent of all members could request that a decision be reconsidered.
A call-in can be invoked if the decision is not arrived at after a “proper consideration” of the relevant facts and issues, or would “disproportionately affect adversely” any section of the inhabitants of the district. Once this is submitted, the council clerk is required to obtain an opinion from a practising barrister or solicitor before the decision is reconsidered.
DUP MLA Peter Weir commented: “If we simply go ahead with a system that is entirely carte blanche and has no restriction whatsoever to a call-in mechanism – which will make it simply an automatic qualified majority vote on all occasions – I fear that across local government we may well be storing up trouble for ourselves.”
Durkan contended that, without regulations, there will be inconsistency in how call-in procedures will operate. He regretted that the regulations would not be approved and added that “we will have to go back to the drawing board and possibly look at changes to primary legislation if we are to achieve consensus.”