The issue became a political football around at the time of the restoration of the Executive in 2007, with Sinn Féin strongly defending its position. However, barely a year later, Sinn Féin simply abandoned their position, and agreed with a DUP proposal to promote an eleven council model. As reported by the BBC:
"The Stormont Executive has agreed a plan to cut Northern Ireland's local authorities from 26 to 11 by 2011. The DUP and Sinn Fein said the compromise plan, passed by seven votes to two, would build a firm foundation for strong local government. It creates four nationalist-dominated councils in the west and south, and six predominantly unionist councils in the north, east and centre. The UUP was the only party in the Executive to oppose the plan."
Sinn Féin could have blocked the change to the 11-Council model, by insisting on a cross-community vote. But they did not, and acquiesced to the DUP's proposal. By so doing, they actually reduced both the area and the population of the districts that would have come under nationalist control, and consigned a greater number of nationalists to life under unionist political domination. The dividing line between the 'green' west and the 'orange' east would have been a line from Dundrum Bay to Magilligan Point.
The Seven Council Proposal:
By agreeing to the 11-Council model, Sinn Féin (and the SDLP, it should be said) has ensured that Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Limavady fall under unionist control, when they would have been nationalist controlled under the 7-Council model. The only 'gain' for nationalism is Down district, which would have been unionist-dominated in the 7-Council model, but joins with nationalist Newry in the 11-Council alternative. Under the 11-Council model the number of nationalist voters living under unionist control would increase to 83,000. The number of unionists under nationalists would, however, fall to 76,000.
The Eleven Council Proposal:
In terms of the total numbers of voters (unionist and nationalist) living in areas controlled by the opposite persuasion, the 11-Council model is better – 160,000 as against 180,000 in the 7-Council model. But the balance within these groups is more favourable to nationalists under the 7-Council model. And surely another compromise could have been found that would have ensured that south Derry, Armagh City, Crossmore and Down could have stayed in nationalist controlled Councils, while letting Banbridge, Cusher, The Orchard, and other unionist areas, stay in unionist controlled Councils. Even if this appeared like re-partition, it would have satisfied more people than either of the other proposals. But if Sinn Féin were only interested in accepting one of the two main proposals, why did they choose the one least favourable for nationalists?
So why did Sinn Féin do it? Why did they abandon an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the dubious pleasure of unionist rule? What can they say to the residents of Armagh and south Derry whose areas will fall under the anti-nationalist control of unionists from Coleraine or Portadown? How will they explain why the advances achieved by Limavady, in terms of recognition of an Irish identity, will be rolled back? Why did they not insist, as a minimum requirement for a deal to move to an 11-Council model, that the Councils would have a statutory obligation if neutrality in terms of symbols, emblems and flags?
One possible, though cynical, explanation is that Sinn Féin are content to consign an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the petty irritations of unionist rule in order to radicalise them. A satisfied nationalist, living in a district where parity of esteem and power-sharing at local level are taken for granted, is less likely to vote for Sinn Féin than a voter whose aspirations and identity are blocked at every turn by unionists.
A less cynical explanation is that Sinn Féin intent to use their blocking power to ensure that all of the eleven councils do provide a neutral environment and parity of esteem, when the legislation establishing them comes before the Executive. Mandatory power-sharing in all eleven councils, along with strict equality-proofing in terms of symbolism, could make the 11-Council option a price worth paying. However, since these things would have been equally possible in the 7-Council model, this explanation may not be correct. Perhaps this was all just part of a larger deal, but the quid pro quo is, as yet, missing.