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From 1921 until 1972 the system of local government in Northern Ireland remained largely unchanged from that introduced under the Local Government (Ireland) Act in 1898. As a consequence by the late 1960s, for a population of some 1.5 million, there were some seventy-three local authorities across Northern Ireland.

Councillors for Newry and Mourne District Council at their first meeting after the local government elections in May 1977. The lady Councillors are Anne Marie Cunningham, Nan Sands and Violette Cromie.  Courtesy of The Outlook
Councillors for Newry and Mourne District Council at their first meeting after the local government elections in May 1977. The lady Councillors are Anne Marie Cunningham, Nan Sands and Violette Cromie. Courtesy of The Outlook

However by the 1960s the system of local government had become synonymous with gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, discrimination in the allocation of public housing and appointments to public sector employment. Eligibility to vote in local elections continued to be based on certain practices abandoned in the rest of the United Kingdom since 1946, i.e. the franchise was based on the ratepayer suffrage and the company vote.

Poster advertising a public meeting organised by local councils to raise support for Customs approval of the Crossmaglen-Carrickmacross road in 1963. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Poster advertising a public meeting organised by local councils to raise support for Customs approval of the Crossmaglen-Carrickmacross road in 1963. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Ratepayer suffrage meant that, with some exceptions, only those who were owners or tenants of a dwelling (or their spouses) were entitled to vote in local government elections. Thus lodgers and grown up children still living with parents had no vote. In addition some large property owners had more than one vote. In 1967 while there were 909,842 voters on the parliamentary electoral register, there were only 694,483 on the local government register.

By the mid-1960s a succession of groups had emerged urging reform of the political system calling for ‘One Man One Vote.’ As the Civil Rights movement became more vocal in its demands traditional communal tensions escalated and by 1969 Northern Ireland witnessed the breakdown of law and order as the two communities clashed. 

An extract from Newry Labour Election News showing Newry Labour candidates in the 1964 local government election. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
An extract from Newry Labour Election News showing Newry Labour candidates in the 1964 local government election. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The process of major reform of local government started in the mid-1960s.  In 1966 a review was launched of local councils in Northern Ireland, which were described, ‘as too many, too small, and too poor - a motley inheritance from the 19th century.’ Ultimately, this led to the Macrory Report of 1970 that advocated a major overhaul with twenty-six district councils replacing the existing structures. 

Against the backdrop of reform, the political situation in Northern Ireland had dramatically deteriorated, and Direct Rule from Westminster was introduced in 1972. In the same year, the Local Government (NI) Act brought in the system of twenty-six Councils. The reform was led by officials and had little input from local politicians. The first election to these new bodies took place in May 1973 with the franchise widened to embrace universal adult suffrage.

Newry Gasworks which were phased out by Newry and Mourne District Council in 1987 after 165 years of operation. This was due to decreasing demand for gas by local customers. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Newry Gasworks which were phased out by Newry and Mourne District Council in 1987 after 165 years of operation. This was due to decreasing demand for gas by local customers. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Prior to 1973 there were six smaller Councils in Newry, south Armagh and south Down area. These were Newry Urban District Council, Newry No. 1 District Council (Co. Down side), Newry No. 2 District Council (Co. Armagh side), Warrenpoint Urban District Council, Kilkeel (South Down) Rural District Council and Kilkeel Urban District Council. These were replaced by Newry and Mourne District Council which had its administrative offices at Monaghan Row, Newry.  

John McAteer, who was the first Chairman of Newry and Mourne District Council. Courtesy of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council
John McAteer, who was the first Chairman of Newry and Mourne District Council. Courtesy of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council

In 2015, further reform of local government led to the twenty-six Councils being reduced to eleven. Newry and Mourne District Council amalgamated with Down District Council to form Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. 

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Declan Carroll

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