Shouting, shooting, or debating? Let councils keep the peace

Real local government could rescue Northern Ireland
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LAST WEEK we saw the furore over John Major's plans for elections to a Northern Ireland assembly getting more furious as the days passed. In the Commons there was anger all round. The attack on the Prime Minister by John Hume, the SDLP leader, resembled a glass thrown in the face.

The annoyance of the Dublin government has been expressed in a more seemly way. But all nationalist leaders, from John Bruton, the Taoiseach, via Mr Hume to the IRA leaders cradling their not-used, not-given-up guns, are angry over the idea of elections to an assembly.

"What's wrong with elections?" asks the reasonable Englishman. "We've had assemblies before," the reasonable nationalist replies. "Any assembly will be a highly lit stage for the Unionist veto, a theatre of negation. It postpones long-term settlement, it bars any links with the Republic. And it could be the excuse for that section of the IRA now chafing at the trigger to go back into business."

And what about the unreasonable nationalist? The IRA fears being stigmatised as having caused 3,000 deaths for the status quo. It wants to internationalise the conflict, with America flattered into heavy involvement. It wants a peace conference of nominated representatives involving smaller groups, including the Protestant paramilitaries, to dilute and diminish Britain's role. The IRA's ideal conference would be rich in rhetoric about ultimate unity, for use in future legal debate. That is the ambitious version, but having retreated from conflict, the IRA's lesser objective is saving face - marching out of the fortress with flags flying and pipes playing.

No serious person can think that even a toned-down version of Stormont, the former Protestant-run Northern Ireland parliament, is on anybody's agenda. And Mr Major has discreetly accepted that prior de-commissioning of any arms is not going to happen. So, something had to be done to keep the Unionists in the peace process. And it is known that David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, would enter negotiations with the IRA if it had the legitimacy of an electoral mandate, of the 12 per cent or so which it regularly rates.

Dublin and the SDLP were piqued at the lack of consultation, so Mr Hume careered into a rant about risking lives to buy votes at Westminster. Nobody keeps his temper better in public than Mr Major and he gracefully crushed Mr Hume. But the seemingly irreconcilable anxieties remain.

Moving to a settlement without arms de-commissioning is fine by the SDLP and poison to the Unionists. Setting up an assembly and holding elections is the opposite. Every contemplated move is mined by a "vast inventory of historic resentments", the bleakly felicitous phrase used in former-Senator Mitchell's report, released last week.

So is there anything constructive that the Government might propose to give people a glimpse of a reachable horizon? I think there is: a humble affair, without pretensions - local government.

At the moment Northern Ireland has the form of local government without the substance. "Bogs, bins and burials", is the crisp local summary of its powers. The province has been governed (and governed well) as a colony. The sense of a place run thoughtfully for people not trusted to run things themselves is profound.

Given the sectarian instincts on both sides - job favouritism, slants over housing - people looking for fairness have been quietly happy with the decent dispassion of British ministers, Tory and Labour. The British are always blamed, often abused, but in their fear of being governed by each other, both sides trust the British (spending general revenue heavily) to govern.

Yet we should still look at local government. It is an increment, a creaky stair upwards. Northern Ireland suffers from a long failure to train people for the responsibilities of politics. The small forum of the council chamber is where it can be done. There is self-respect in voting for people to wield real powers on your behalf. There is therapy in engaging with problems and making decisions when, for 23 years, politics has been a frozen ballet of struck attitudes.

If the Prime Minister, without abandoning the assembly, were to let new oxygen into the fish tank of local government, he would achieve several things at once. He would concede nothing to Sinn Fein, a player in local government, notably in Belfast, but a marginal one. He would also bring certain requirements not yet faced on to the agenda.

There is no point in giving powers, municipal or provincial, to Protestants to keep Catholics out of council jobs and housing, nor the reverse. Requirements have to be made, enforceable requirements, guaranteeing democratic practice - barring the swamping of committees by a majority party - and perhaps securing a share of chairmanships for minorities.

Such standards can be met. Mr Hume's own council in Derry has observed those niceties; so has the Unionist-led council at Dungannon. And politicians, starved of any function but manoeuvre and oration, have a great motive to make councils work.

Then again, by reinvigorating local government, momentum is maintained. One present fear is that Northern Ireland could slip out of the happy state of non-murder if an IRA faction used lack of progress as a pretext. Re-empowered local government, with Catholic voters commanding majorities for solid business in their strongholds, is progress. But it is progress independent of the IRA's wish for all-party talks to be held while it keeps its arms. Crucially, if the experiment works reasonably well, it will, as practice and example, influence the forms of any settlement at any conference.

Above all, this is a measure for doing things rather than talking about doing them. The quip, associated with the former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, "That's all very well in practice, but will it stand up as a theory?", almost defines the way Ulster politicians have been encouraged to dance angrily around the totem poll of abstraction.

If the peace is to gel, then that frozen ballet of workaday politics must thaw. How healthy for councillors in Newry to have a row about a by-pass. How hopeful in Ballymena for elected representatives to wrangle about building a bridge.