Council poll may be Agreement's real test

With the last three weeks dominated by saturation coverage of the race for Westminster, people could be forgiven for forgetting that another election is taking place.

With the last three weeks dominated by saturation coverage of the race for Westminster, people could be forgiven for forgetting that another election is taking place.

More than 1,000 people have put their names forward for 582 seats in Northern Ireland’s local councils.

And while the focus has been firmly on the battle for 18 seats at Westminster, the results of the local government elections could have as big an impact on the peace process.

Significant Ulster Unionist losses on the back of a bad General Election could spell the end for David Trimble’s leadership and do irreparable damage to the Good Friday Agreement.

An increased vote for Sinn Fein in both contests could also pile fresh pressure on the SDLP as it faces its biggest decision yet on when to endorse new policing arrangements.

The local Government elections will take on an added significance if the electorate votes tactically along pro or anti-Agreement lines in the Westminster poll.

Were that to happen, some observers would argue that the council results would actually be a more accurate reflection of where support for the parties really lies and that in turn would inform party strategies in the run-up to the 2003 Assembly Elections.

The election comes at a critical time for councils as Stormont Environment Minister Sam Foster prepares to revamp local government with his ambitious review of public administration.

As a consequence, this will probably be the last time voters across the province will decide the fate of so many councils.

So what are the key council battles?

BELFAST: With the last city council finely balanced between unionists and nationalists, the question is will the electoral scales tip far enough to give Sinn Fein its first ever Lord Mayor?

The party is hoping to pick up seats in Balmoral and Oldpark but the SDLP is also hoping to regain a seat it lost to republicans in Castle.

The DUP is targeting four seats with United Unionist Nelson McCausland running under its banner in Oldpark.

The PUP could have a battle on its hands to hold onto Billy Hutchinson’s seat. The other issue is how great will Alliance’s hold on the balance of power be?

ARMAGH: This finally balanced 22-seat council has a slight unionist advantage but how will the bitter divisions within unionism impact on the council?

The DUP’s Brian Hutchinson has been the focus of unionist feuding on the wider stage with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble producing a photograph of him allegedly engaging in conversation with a Sinn Fein representative.

Father and son, Noel and Paul Berry are bidding to take seats for the DUP. The SDLP will fight hard to hold onto its four seat advantage over Sinn Fein. The Women’s Coalition is running its first candidate, Margaret Connolly in Armagh City.

BANBRIDGE: The fall from grace of anti-Agreement Ulster Unionist William McCracken following photographs in a Sunday tabloid newspaper makes this an intriguing council.

Mr McCracken’s withdrawal from the election has led to his replacement by Norah Beare, secretary to Jeffrey Donaldson.

The 17-seat council will remain solidly unionist but will the DUP make enough inroads into the UUP vote?

Sinn Fein is fielding its first candidate, Brendan Curran in Knockiveagh while the SDLP will be aiming to hold onto its three seats.

CASTLEREAGH: The Robinson Empire stretches from East Belfast through Castlereagh but it already has its heart firmly set on the Ards Peninsula in the General Election.

With 10 councillors, Peter Robinson’s DUP dominated Castlereagh Borough Council and expect to do so again but could also for the first time face a Sinn Feiner in the council chamber.

In a bold move, republicans switched Sean Hayes from South Belfast to this council area to break new ground for his party. The SDLP will fight to retain its two seats.

COLERAINE: With Gregory Campbell putting in a strong fight for the DUP for the Derry seat at Westminster against the UUP’s William Ross, the party will be hoping to feed off the energy of his campaign.

The Ulster Unionists took 10 of the council’s 22 seats in 1997 but the DUP are confident of improving on their current tally of five. The SDLP led by John Dallat will battle with Alliance to provide the alternative voice to the two main unionist parties.

CRAIGAVON: The departure of Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition spokesmen Breandan Mac Cionnaith and Joe Duffy put paid to the prospect of rival sides in the Drumcree dispute facing each other in the council chamber.

Portadown Orange spokesman David Jones running as an independent and Co Armagh Grand Master Denis Watson, running under a DUP banner, are bidding for seats.

UK Unionist deputy leader David Vance’s performance in Lurgan will also be watched with interest. Sinn Fein hope to pick up seats following the departure of Messrs Mac Cionnaith and Duffy while the DUP is also running former Ulster Unionist Jonathan Bell.

COOKSTOWN: All eyes will be on the McCrea family to see if they can increase their and the DUP’s voice on the nationalist controlled 16-seat council.

The Rev William McCrea’s wife Anne has been her party’s lone representative. Her son Ian is aiming for a seat in Central. Sinn Fein and the SDLP will battle for the top slot.

DERRY: John Hume’s hometown has always been the jewel in the SDLP crown but this election sees major changes in the party line up, with the departure of several of its best known faces including Finance Minister Mark Durkan.

Sinn Fein has been chiselling away at the SDLP’s grip on the council and will hope to close the gap. The party has also lost a well known face, national chairman Mitchel McLaughlin but has high hopes for Bogside Residents’ spokesman Donncha Mac Niallais.

In unionism, the DUP led by William Hay and Regional Development Minister Gregory Campbell will engage in a lively tussle with the Ulster Unionists led by Andrew Davidson.

DUNGANNON: Ken Maginnis’ peerage will not see him retire to the Upper House. Unable to resist the lure of the ballot box, the former Ulster Unionist MP is standing in this delicately balanced council.

Other notable faces seeking election to the 22-seat council are Stormont Social Development Minister Maurice Morrow of the DUP and Sinn Fein MLA Francie Molloy.

FERMANAGH: Sinn Fein scored a major success with Stephen Huggett’s victory in the by-election for Erne West and will hope to make further gains at the expense of the SDLP.

However it was the Ulster Unionists who had by far the largest tally of any single party with nine seats.

Will they be able to hold on or will support for the Good Friday Agreement see the DUP and other anti-Agreement unionists making an impact in what has always been a UUP stronghold?

LIMAVADY: Nationalists held a narrow majority on the 15-member council, with the SDLP taking seven seats and Sinn Fein one to the UUP’s six and DUP’s one.

However any increase in the republican vote and team of councillors would be seen as proof that Sinn Fein can break new ground and lay the foundations for a future assault on the SDLP.

LISBURN: The Ulster Unionists have long held this council but a selection row and divisions over the Good Friday Agreement could loosen its grip.

The performance of UUP Assembly deputy whip Ivan Davis will be of particular interest following his very public falling out with anti-Agreement colleagues over his deselection in Lisburn South.

The row was eventually settled but at whose expense?

Anti-Agreement Ulster Unionists will watch with the interest the performance of rising star and Jeffrey Donaldson aide, David Archer Jnr. The performance of Gary McMichael and David Adams, "councillors formerly known as UDP," will be critical for the party’s future. Will they pay the price for failing to register the party’s name?

NEWTOWNABBEY: With three candidates running in this solidly unionist council, Sinn Fein is hoping to break new ground with its first ever councillor or councillors.

A plethora of anti-Agreement candidates are also running in a council where the Ulster Unionists succeeded in having 10 people elected in 1997.

Father-and-son team Norman and Billy Boyd are hoping to make an impact for the NIUP. Former member Roger Hutchinson faces his first electoral test since defecting to the DUP.

United Unionist MLA Fraser Agnew is seeking re-election. Prominent loyalist Tommy Kirkham is also bidding for a seat after falling out with his party, the UDP.

OMAGH: Barry McElduff’s victory in a by-election last year raised the stakes in the battle between his party and the SDLP to be the leading voice on this nationalist dominated council.

As the parties slug it out on the Westminster stage for the West Tyrone seat, the SDLP led by Joe Byrne face a similar task as Brid Rodgers - can they put a spoke in the wheel of Sinn Fein’s electoral machine?

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