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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

DUP split in Ballymena may leave door open for power-sharing

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Ballymena's borough council, historically a DUP stronghold, could have its first ever power-sharing agreement, following a split in Ian Paisley's party.

Political negotiations are expected to continue right up until a council meeting tomorrow evening when senior positions, including mayor and deputy mayor, must be elected. A source involved in the talks said: "The DUP is offering the SDLP a deputy mayorship for one year and a chairmanship for three years as part of a power-sharing arrangement."

The DUP had a working majority of 15 on the 24-strong council until earlier this year, allowing it to push through whatever decisions it wished. One of these included giving Paisley the freedom of the borough.

Since March, however, six DUP councillors have resigned in protest at Paisley's decision to share power with Sinn Féin at Stormont. These members have now formed a new group called the Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUC).

There has been bitter rivalry between the two factions, which has pleased one party at least. "At least it keeps them off my back," quipped Monica Digney, the town's sole Sinn Féin councillor.

The DUP and UUC are intent on excluding each other from office. Each is prepared to reach a power-sharing accommodation with the two SDLP members and five Ulster Unionist party councillors in order to outflank their former colleagues. Digney says she has not been included in the negotiations so far.

James Currie, a former mayor of the borough, heads the five-strong Ulster Unionist grouping which would be a key component of an arrangement. He said: "In my view there has to be some form of power sharing because you need 13 councillors to be in control and nobody has that."

If Currie's group combined with the DUP, they would have 14 councillors between them but he appeared to rule that out. "In my view there should be a concerted effort to include all parties," he said. "It would be a gesture of an inclusive society if Monica Digney also got something out of it."

Robin Stirling, a member of the UUC grouping, firmly ruled out a deal with his former colleagues. "I can't predict the outcome but personally I will be voting against the DUP and after that it will depend on who is nominated."

One possibility is that either James Henry, an independent, or Currie will be made mayor and PJ McAvoy of the SDLP will emerge as an agreed candidate for deputy mayor. These positions could also be shared over a two- or three-year timeframe.

June 3, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 3, 2007.