Unionists hope to loosen Sinn Fein grip

Dungannon Council Offices
Dungannon Council Offices

Unionists will be hoping that the republican grip on one Sinn Fein-dominated town will be loosened when it becomes part of the new Mid Ulster authority.

Magherafelt District Council – one of three which will be absorbed into the aforementioned supercouncil – is understood to be the only authority in the Province where the republican party has an outright majority of all seats.

Of the 16 councillors holding posts, nine of them are from Sinn Fein.

The upshot is that even if all other councillors in Magherafelt were to block a Sinn Fein proposal, the party could still push it through regardless.

Under the new arrangements, Magherafelt will be merged with Dungannon & South Tyrone and Cookstown District Council to form the new Mid Ulster supercouncil.

Although the other two councils are still dominated by Sinn Fein, the party does not have quite the same stranglehold.

For example in Dungannon, Sinn Fein has eight out of 22, and Cookstown has six out of 16.

DUP Magherafelt councillor Paul McLean was asked if the election and the council merger could help to break the Sinn Fein grip.

He said he was not one to predict votes, adding that the west of the Bann has always been something of a colder house for unionists. But he added: “We live in hope”.

With Sinn Fein vying for 20 of the 40 seats in the new merged supercouncil (down from 54 across the previous three), if 100 per cent successful the party would have a decisive, but not outright majority, share of the power.

Councillor McLean, who has been on the council for 25 years, said as far as Magherafelt is concerned, at the very least “it’s not going to make it any worse than it is now. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

For the time being it is understood the council meetings will simply rotate around the three existing venues, but Loughry College, between Cookstown and Dungannonn, has been mooted as a possible administrative base for the new authority.

Boasting new increased planning powers, the new super-council may have to rule on renewable energy projects, most notably a number of proposed wind farms in the Sperrin Mountains which have attracted opposition.

These increased planning powers could also be central to how the region develops the tourism potential of its two main natural assets – Lough Neagh and the Sperrins.

A concern and source of frustration for voters is the stalled police and fire training college at Desertcreat, near Cookstown.

As Northern Ireland’s largest ever capital construction project, the college has brought the promise of significant economic spin-off for the Mid Ulster area.

Although councillors are not responsible for the delays, how the parties handle this latest impasse will be watched closely by the electorate.

There are major internal changes taking place as a consequence of the triple-council merger.

Although the overall catchment area of the three councils will be “95 per cent” the same as before, deputy returning officer John McLaughlin said that within that there is a big redrawing of the map – creating seven district electoral areas (DEAs) which are “unrecognisable” when compared to the previous ones.

UUP Dungannon councillor Kenneth Reid said the authority had been the only one of the 26 councils in the Province to have frozen their rates for five consecutive years.

However, he is not confident that such a freeze will be maintained under the new arrangements.