The DUP has defended its co-option of dozens of unelected councillors – at least six of whom are relatives of those they are replacing – as being a natural response to the end of double-jobbing.
Since the last election in 2011, the party has brought 24 non-elected representatives onto local councils to replace party members who had successfully been voted in, but later left office midway through their term.
This has happened largely over the last couple of months.
But the party said that this was unrelated to the upcoming May election, and was instead almost entirely down to the party’s pledge that all MLAs who are also councillors must stand down.
A spokesman for the party said yesterday that all but two had stood down for this reason.
When this seemingly high number of co-options was put to its spokesman, he said: “We had probably to take quite a lot of criticism for the number of Assembly members who were in council.
“That now has ended, and the only way to do that quickly was to use co-option.”
Some of those who stood down were replaced by members of their family – such as Stephen Moutray and Gordon Dunne, who were each replaced with their own sons.
The DUP spokesman added that outgoing councillors do not determine their replacements themselves, but that this is done by the party after inviting competition for the role.
The DUP is the largest party in the Province, with 179 councillors.
The second biggest is Sinn Fein with 138. It has co-opted 17 unelected members onto councils.
For example, just last week Sinn Fein brought six new councillors onto its team at Newry and Mourne District Council, replacing members who were not intending to fight the May 2014 council elections (see right).
The DUP spokesman added: “If a councillor is genuinely unable to continue in their post, well then obviously they can step down and be replaced. But it shouldn’t be used simply to facilitate electioneering coming up to the elections in May.”
Sinn Fein issued a statement in which it said that the upcoming changes to councils – which will see the number of authorities cut from 26 to 11 – allowed any serving elected members who did not want to contest their new seats to take redundancy deals in the run-up to the changes.
It added: “As part of that package it also allowed political parties to replace those councillors through co-option in order to save the public purse a significant amount of money that would have been spent on numerous by-elections.
“This was a common sense approach. They were designed for the smooth transition and co-options are part and parcel of that.
“The real test for political parties will obviously be the local government elections in May.”