The official beginning of the biggest local government shake-up in the North West for 40 years has ended in a bitter political row.
The first public meeting of the Statutory Transition Committeee which will implement the merging of Derry City Council and Strabane District Council was held at Derry’s Guildhall yesterday afternoon.
The first business saw Sinn Fein councillors propose and second two party colleagues, Strabane Councillor Kieran McGuire and Derry Councillor Paul Fleming, to the posts of Chair and Vice Chair of the committee, prompting an angry reaction from unionist and nationalist councillors.
Sinn Fein holds nine seats on the committee, the SDLP four and unionists have three councillors.
Taking up his role, Councillor McGuire - a former Chairman of Strabane District Council - said the committee had a “tough job” ahead in the implementation of the Review of Public Administration and the “biggest re-working of local government in 40 years”. He added: “It’s not lost on me how big a job lies ahead of us. It’s going to be a tough couple of years but hopefully in the years following that there will be massive savings made.”
With the proposal of Councillor Fleming for the Vice Chair position, SDLP Councillor Shaun Gallagher said Sinn Fein was “hogging the seats”, adding that unionist politicians should be given the position in keeping with the “goodwill” which existed on Derry City Council.
A counter proposal by veteran DUP Strabane Councillor Thomas Kerrigan for Alderman Maurice Devenney to be elected to the post was seconded by Colr Gallagher. Following a recorded vote the eight other Sinn Fein councillors present voted in favour of Councillor Fleming.
Sinn Fein Councillor Barney O’Hagan said that even with the d’Hondt mechanism as applied by Derry City Council, Sinn Fein “by weight of numbers” can democratically claim both the chair and vice chair.
SDLP Councillors Brenda Stevenson and Sean Carr said Sinn Fein’s move made it “a sad day”.
Councillor Carr added: “This is not a very good way of starting off our journey in RPA, when one party dominates the top two positions.”
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney said the move was “wrong”.
“The message going out of this room today it that there is no shared future for the unionist community,” he stated.
Prior to the first official business of the meeting being tabled, Councillor Gallagher called for clarification to be sought from the Department of Environment on what he termed the “exclusion” of unionist parties and the SDLP from Strabane on the committee.
“We need to make sure the numbers are accurate in representing the whole district council area . . . it’s very important we’re not accused of gerrymandering the vote in Strabane,” the Derry SDLP Councillor said.