In the United States we have a saying: ‘All politics is local.’ While this phrase is most famously associated with former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, it more readily applies to the context in Northern Ireland, where local is heightened by the proximity and scope of citizen to government.
This past month, I had the honor and privilege of meeting two local Northern Irish politicians, Thomas Hogg, the Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, and Elisha McCallion, the newly-elected Mayor of the City of Derry.
Every year, the Council hosts a spectacular night out for the UUJ international students, complete with traditional Irish music, plenty of drink and delicious food. Councillors from various parties were in attendance, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Traditional Unionist Party (TUV), Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party. The Pro-Vice Chancellor of my uni, Professor Hugh McKenna, delivered a rousing speech highlighting the many proud achievements of Northern Ireland, among them Game of Thrones, the tractor, chocolate milk, the ejector seat, CPR, Snow Patrol and the Delorean! ‘When you go back home, tell them about your time in Northern Ireland,’ Mr. McKenna smiled.
Later that week, my Economic, Social and Cultural Rights law course took a day trip to the City of Derry, where we met the newly-elected Mayor, Elisha McCallion. As we soaked in the history of the Derry Guildhall, Mayor McCallion explained the changes that had befallen the council, and their implications on local politics.
Back in 1973, Northern Ireland was divided into 26 districts, each with an average population of 65,000. Prior to that, there had been a whopping 73 local authorities serving a population of approximately one and a half million people in six counties. This duplicative and complex system was replaced during the Troubles, at which time all local authorities were abolished in favor of 26 single-tier district councils that had very limited powers.
In June 2002, the Northern Ireland Executive called for a review of public administration, which recommended combining the 26 councils into 11 super-councils. This endeavor aimed to give each council more power to shape local politics and drive economic development. Today, super-councils have control over planning, roads, housing, community development, local economic development and tourism.
Despite their expanded powers, these new super-councils also have much larger catchment areas, placing the ‘local authority’ further away from the citizens. With less than a month in office, Mayor McCallion demonstrated a keen sensitivity to this challenge, acknowledging that her dominion now encompassed both Derry and Strabane, two far-removed areas with several hours of travel time between them. But Mayor McCallion was committed to serving all of her constituents despite geographic challenges.
‘This is an exciting time for the council,’ she said, reflecting on the changes she has overseen during her service in city council. Indeed, these reforms have been referred to by some as ‘the biggest change in local democracy in more than 40 years.’