Unionist line of Londonderry Mayors 'not under threat'

THE long procession of unionist Mayors of Londonderry - extending from John Rowley's appointment by King James in 1613 to DUP Alderman Drew Thompson's most recent stint in 2007 - is not coming to an end despite alarm bells sounded by Alliance MLA Stephen Farry at the Assembly last week.

Speaking during a debate on Environment Minister Edwin Poots' proposed Local Government and Planning reforms the Alliance MLA worried that the use of the d'Hondt system could remove the prospect of unionists holding the Mayoral office in Londonderry.

DUP Alderman Gregory Campbell told the Sentinel the party's council delegation was not happy with the current d'Hondt arrangements for the selection of Mayor and the office - given its prestige - should be rotated between nationalists and unionists in Londonderry each year.

He referred to an incident in 2007 when Londonderry unionists gained just one seat out of ten on the local policing partnership under d'Hondt despite making up one fifth of the local council.

"We have made the point on numerous occasions that we support a system that is based on proportionality but on occasions d'Honte has worked badly, for example, several years ago it was used to allocate places on the District Policing Partnership (DPP) and out of nine unionists we only got one.

"If another system had been used on a more proportionate basis we would have got two," Mr Campbell told the paper.

He said d'Hondt should be kept out of Mayoral selections as the office was too important.

He added: "On Mayoral stakes we've always said given their prestige they should be kept separate from other committee places and allocated to Unionists and Nationalists."

During the debate on Council reform at the Assembly last week Mr Poots said local authorities could choose between the D'Hontdt and Sainte-Lagu divisor methods when selecting Mayors. Both systems give a weighted advantage to larger parties.

Despite d'Hondt having been adopted and used to select a number of Unionist Mayors at Derry City Council over recent years Dr Farry - an outgoing representative at North Down Borough Council - said he was worried that under present voting trends there was a danger this could become a thing of the past.

He voiced his concerns saying: "I want to ask the Minister about governance and his reference to d'Hondt as the backstop of arrangements if local agreement cannot be found.

"How wedded is the Minister to that method, bearing in mind that it can produce strange anomalies in different parts of Northern Ireland?

"If it were introduced, it would effectively remove the prospect of any independent holding civic office in Northern Ireland.

"Based on current voting patterns, it would also remove the prospect of a nationalist ever holding civic office in places such as Castlereagh and Lisburn or a unionist ever holding civic office in places such as Derry or Newry."

The Minister replied: "I am no more in love with the d'Hondt mechanism than anyone else. The d'Hondt arrangement does not have to be in place.

"Councils can agree other processes whereby even members of the Alliance Party could become chairs of committees, mayors or deputy mayors.

"I appreciate the Member's concerns, and he did declare an interest. However, we will create a system that ensures that minority voices are heard in councils and are not overruled.

"Councils are masters of their own destinies, and if they want to identify and go with a system other than d'Hondt, I am more than willing to allow them to do that.

"I will welcome those councils' decisions on what is best for their future."