Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An Ulster once again

Every so often, the would-be omniscient blogger is forced to conclude that there's an important relevant issue out there about which we haven't a clue. Today it's Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain's radical proposals to restructure local government and administration in the six counties -- not least to make the structures correspond a bit better with the county structure than they do now. Hain's main salespitch is

For a place the size of Northern Ireland, 5,400 square miles with a population of 1.7m people, we are both over-governed and over-administered.

Scale up the area and population appropriately to the Republic, and, as the smart conservatives say, Heh (or is it Indeed?). Now our complaint about the Republic is not that there's an excess of government, but that it's in the wrong place -- too much structure at national level, where there's not a lot for our 166 TDs (of which 20 percent get to be ministers) to do, and too little at local level where more responsive government might actually be needed. Bertie's government has only accelerated the trend of dumping any controversial function over to new quangos and so the layers of government, camouflaged by Celtic Tiger growth, increase.

That perspective did mean that our first reaction was to think that Hain's reforms sound good. But the overall reaction in Northern Ireland has been negative, not least -- and bear with us now -- from Ian Paisley:

This is a clear attempt to split the province. Nationalists will be able to develop their united Ireland policy in the councils that they dominate.

A look at the map of the new council areas relative to the existing town-based ones shows what he's getting at (and again, we await the bolt of lightning for agreeing with Big Ian about anything) -- Northern Ireland is a bizarrely shaped entity, and the demography is ever more matching the geography as the bits of it that awkwardly straddle the Republic become more nationalist. Hence the fear that the county councils become the precursors to a new Border Commission. The cagey response to the plans from the Shinners ("scrutinise the review recommendations") doubtless only confirmed Paisley in his view.

But underlying Paisley's view is that the nationalist residents of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and Derry are looking for a vehicle for closer alignment with the Republic. Consider however a major focus of Hain's reforms -- health. Just how happy are the aforementioned counties' republican neighbours with how they are being treated?

RTE -- A health campaign group in the North East [of the Republic] has claimed recommendations on the future of surgical services in Cavan and Monaghan will result in unnecessary loss of life. The Co Monaghan Community Alliance say the centralisation of acute surgical care at Cavan General Hospital spells the death knell of Monaghan Hospital. The recommendations were announced by the National Hospitals Office and the Royal College of Surgeons

There's always a chance that if the Northern reforms actually work, the people of Monaghan might prefer a health services arrangement centered north of the border rather than on the bad road to Cavan. Indeed, because of the strange geography, there's a good argument for providing more effective government to much of Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal via cross-border arrangement rather than through Bertie's collection of yes-men, gun-toting maniax (sic), and autorities (sic) in Dublin (with offices in each minister's constituency).

A totally speculative thought of course, so for firmer facts and analysis, go to Slugger O'Toole and scroll like you've never scrolled before.

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