It's becoming clear -- though perhaps not as much to Bertie Ahern as it should be -- that London has settled on a two-track devolution strategy for Northern Ireland. While restoration of the Assembly will be left subject to the ability of the political parties to work with each other, it's full steam ahead for a rejuvenation of local government. Thus in effect, the plan is that increased local autonomy can act as a substitute for what the Assembly should be providing.
This strategy has an interesting precedent, albeit with very different motives. As Prime Minister in a Conservative & Unionist majority government that had come to power courtesy of the Liberals' split over Home Rule, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was looking for a way to provide some additional powers at the local level in Ireland in the hope that it would head off demands for home rule. Hence the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, which created the council government system more or less as we know it today in Ireland.
Ironically, the current system in the Republic is much closer to the original structure of the 1898 UK Act because it has been tampered with much less than in the north, where the franchise was later limited to property owners, and following the disastrous consequences thereof, many powers were removed from the local authorities and given to quangos. Which Peter Hain now wants to abolish and return power to new structures that will look quite a bit like the old county councils.
Of course history showed that the Conservative gambit that that the county councils could soak up the demands of nationalism was not vindicated, but the durability of the stuctures is impressive nonetheless. Incidentally, and in the spirit of this meandering post, we can't let mention of PM Robert Gascoyne-Cecil go without noting that he is the "Bob" of the expression "Bob's your uncle."
Anyway we became a little more convinced that the council strategy really is afoot upon reading this Slugger O'Toole post, where Mick concludes:
Anyone for council elections in 2008?
We'd bet on it. See also El Blogador's thoughts, who thinks, as we do about Bertie, that Sinn Fein haven't fully grasped what is going on.