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The impossible dream: Democratic and honest government in the North of Ireland

Carve up at Belfast City Council

12 January 2024

Despite failure upon failure, there is one central illusion that dominates political discussion around the Irish peace process.  If only we could get Stormont back! If only the political parties would get to work!  The problem with this perspective is that we have before us government at work in the local councils. The results are far from edifying.

The most recent example of local administration came at Belfast City Council in the division of a Neighbourhood Regeneration Fund. Initial funds had been allocated to Sólás, an autistic children’s charity. Funds had also been allocated to Hearth Historic Buildings Trust, to transform Riddel’s Warehouse in Central Belfast into an event and work space.

At the committee Sólás’ funding was cut to a tiny sum and the Warehouse fund was cut to zero. The fund was divided between the DUP and Sinn Féin for patronage, mainly in the Markets and Village areas.  Following protest, the cut to Sólás was partly reversed.  Riddel’s Warehouse still received nothing.

It should be noted that a great deal of money available to NGOs in the health and social services area has been lost following Brexit. The Riddel’s Warehouse project would have gone some way towards correcting the vandalism of a council with a history of collaboration with large property developers that has seen the demolition of much of historic Belfast while many areas are left to rot.  In addition, the Warehouse would have received matching funding from outside the city which will not now be available.

None of this is accidental. The DUP and Sinn Fein set up a Strategic Policy and Resources committee in the council staffed only with their members. They then made the meetings private to keep their dealings out of the public gaze. Their routine activity is to divide public funds between the two parties.

The whole story tells us that the council is run in the interests of big business and that social care and the built environment take second place to a sectarian division of funds in a system run on sectarian privilege.

Those calling for the return of Stormont and for politicians to get to work should think again. Workers would be better served by calling for the tearing down of political institutions in the North and of eerily similar structures in the South, based on straightforward corruption, rather than sectarianism and beginning the construction of a Workers’ Republic.

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