Reinvigorating local democracy – NILGA Annual Conference

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Allan wears gold medal won by Steve Williams OBE at 2008 Beijing Olympics

This year’s two-day annual conference of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) was held at the scenic surroundings of the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co. Down.

“Change” was the theme, with sessions on shaping change, leading change, and supporting change.

For the session on leading change, there was a panel of political representatives, with their presentations strictly time enforced by chair, Councillor John O’Kane.

David Ford (Alliance) said that the key issue in the discussion of reforming local government in Northern Ireland was the development of a community plan, and whether other statutory agencies will cooperate in this process. He also said that while there is strong support for the reform agenda, there are increasing doubts about the restructuring agenda, and questions what spending £120 million upfront on restructuring is doing for local democracy, when we don’t know any outcomes of that spend.

Roy Beggs (UUP) said that it was important to devolve powers to local government, in order to engage with the public and make them feel empowered in the decision making process. Specifically, he argued the significance of local councils being responsible for their own local town centre plan, local area plan and to take their own local planning decisions.

Margaret Ritchie (Minister, DSD; SDLP) demonstrated her strong belief in local government with examples of her decisions, such as transferring many functions and programmes from her Executive department. As leader of the SDLP, she declared her party’s sine qua non for supporting the local government reform process: “We absolutely have to have an unambiguous statutory commitment to power sharing and protection for minorities.”

Peter Weir (DUP) believed that “the vast bulk of councillors” are responsive to their community, with good engagement at a local democracy level; local government does reflect local concerns. Notwithstanding recent political scandals, “We need as a society to value public service.” For this, he laid some fault among the media for too often presenting a cynical view.

Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein) wants to devolve as much power to local government, for local people to make decisions on matters that affect them, citing that this was in keeping with the European Union principle of subsidiarity. He added that even though local councils in Northern Ireland do not have many powers, local people still expect councillors to be responsible for public services.

There then followed a discussion between the panelists and the audience, facilitated by Jim Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick introduced a guest speaker, Olympic gold medal winning Great Britain rower, Steve Williams OBE, who spoke on “Setting Your Goals and Achieving Them”:

Steve described the perspective of training for the Olympics, his own setbacks and how he persevered in obtaining his achievements. Contrasting himself to the “whoppers” of Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave, calling himself “little Steve Williams” and seeing “normal” sized rowers win at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he adopted a personal mantra, “Even normal people win gold medals”, reinforcing his determination.

He passed his medals into the audience, and I have to say there is something special about holding one in your hands. I can only imagine the awesome feeling of actually winning one.

This session ended with a real exercise session on the rowing machines, a purely unfair match between the Olympian and some local councillors and conference delegates. NILGA President, John Mathews, tried to get me onto an ergo, but that would have been too conspicuous for me. Anyway, it was more fun to record the vast difference between Williams’ world-class rowing form and that of the amateurs!

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