Is the flag row running out of political steam?

A protest at Belfast City Hall over restrictions placed on flying the Union flag.

A protest at Belfast City Hall over restrictions placed on flying the Union flag.

By Steven McCaffery

THE final legal steps are being taken to set Belfast’s new political boundaries – but will that also draw a line under the campaign to restore city hall’s Union flag?

For while the decision to restrict the flying of the flag remains a major controversy, which may yet see further twists and turns, the obvious political routes to permanently restoring the emblem are closing down.

The release of new District Electoral Areas for Northern Ireland has provided the clearest picture yet of the future balance of power in the City Council.

In one sense it merely confirms Belfast’s longstanding political trajectory – with nationalism growing in influence, as unionism declines – but as the new map enters the final stages before becoming law, it presents flag campaigners with a stark reality.

The emergence of a nationalist majority is now possible but unlikely at next year’s election, though it is clear that if any ambitions exist for an increase in unionist influence, they are likely to run up against a brick wall of hard electoral numbers.

There is now no obvious means by which unionists can hope to overturn the December vote that restricted the flying of the Union flag from city hall.

The Alliance Party could continue to hold the balance of power between the unionist and nationalist blocs, a position which saw it targeted in the months of violence and tension that followed the vote, as reported here in The Detail.

Elections analyst Nicholas Whyte said of the new boundaries: “They mean that the balance of power quite likely remains a hung council with neither nationalists nor unionists having a majority.

“But at the same time, it is possible that nationalists might get an overall majority, given that the boundaries favour them more than unionists.”

At the last election Belfast had 51 council seats, with 21 going to unionists, 24 to nationalists and six to the Alliance party.

Next year will see elections to Northern Ireland’s new-look 11 council model, replacing the long-standing network of 26 local authorities.

The councils will be elected in shadow form before taking on their full powers.

The poll is currently set for June 2014, on the same day as the European Parliament election.

A straw poll of party number-crunchers revealed fairly even predictions for the future shape of the council in Belfast.

The expanded Belfast City Council – taking in former parts of Lisburn in the west and Castlereagh in the east – will have 60 seats.

Unionist estimates suggest their ranks could be between 24-26 seats, while they estimate nationalist parties coming in with between 27-29 seats, and the remainder going to Alliance.

Nationalist sources vary, but place unionists as low as 24 and nationalists as high as 31, with Alliance taking the remaining council positions.

The estimates are early forecasts based on the 2011 election.

The political realities of the new boundaries have sparked some unionist criticism.

But others within unionism note that the demographic trends in the city are already a reality, they point out that unionists have not held a majority in the city council since the ‘90s, and they argue that the proposed changes make little additional alteration to the big picture.

The new blueprint comes in the same week that unionism’s ‘Plan B’ – to fly the flag all year round at the cenotaph in city hall grounds – fell by the wayside after failing to secure support.

These ongoing political developments and the early forecasts of the battles to come in Belfast confirm, however, that unionism’s contest with the Alliance Party is set to continue.

The debate so far in Belfast has focused on the areas being brought into the new city boundaries.

But there has been less discussion on how the reforms will level out the ratio of councillors to population in electoral wards, addressing an imbalance caused by population shifts, but which favoured unionists.

Mr Whyte notes that the Shankill area of the city had one councillor per 2,600 voters, compared with one councillor per 4,000 votes in Upper Falls.

He says the new boundaries will help to address such anomalies.

So, regardless of the balance of power overall, he says of the reforms: “We’re now in a situation where the distortion in election results that was being caused by out of date boundaries will be removed.

“Future election results will see the people who are voted-in having a closer relationship with the number of votes cast.”

If the political temperature rises over the new boundaries, it could delay the public consultation process, and may even push it into public inquiry.

It is understood the Department of Environment, overseeing the reform of local government, has lobbied the Northern Ireland Office and the Boundary Commission in a bid to ensure the process can be completed by the Autumn to avoid any delay of the local government elections.

But there are fears that the time-frame is already narrow.

The European Parliament may proceed with a proposal to move its elections forward by two weeks – bringing the poll to between May 22 to 25 next year – adding to the pressure on the plans for Northern Ireland’s local government elections.

Nicholas Whyte, however, is already arguing that officials should delay the Northern Ireland local government poll.

“It is not clear having separate elections in the same year is necessarily a bad thing, it is fairly clear however that when you do have the same vote for different things on the same day, that voters will get confused,” he says.

“And it seems to me therefore sensible to have the two elections on different days. It’s more of a pain for political parties who therefore must raise money for more than one campaign at the same time.

“But elections are not really set up for the benefit of political parties, they are set up for the benefit of voters.”

The Union flag campaign in Belfast may be running out of political options, but it could yet have an impact on Northern Ireland’s election planning.

It is hard to resist the conclusion however, that in the city hall at least, Belfast’s Union flag crisis is all over, bar the shouting.