DUP: Boundary plans could be a threat to NI’s link with Britain

The current constituency map for Northern Ireland
The current constituency map for Northern Ireland

Nothing less than the “constitutional stability of Northern Ireland” is under threat from planned changes to the electoral map.

That is the view from the DUP, put forward in response to blueprints for a wholesale re-drawing of constituency borders whilst the UUP said that the “drastic” scale of the proposals “shocked” the party.

The new proposed boundaries, revealed in September 2016, reducing constituencies from 18 to 17 (with new names for constituencies in purple)

The new proposed boundaries, revealed in September 2016, reducing constituencies from 18 to 17 (with new names for constituencies in purple)

It can now be revealed that the only major political party not to offer an official view was Sinn Fein.

The plans themselves were set out by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland last September, and would see the number of Parliamentary seats drop from 18 to 17.

On Tuesday the commission published the full list of consultation responses the plans have generated from parties, community groups, and concerned individuals.

Any changes which end up being adopted are set to affect both the Westminster elections (for MPs) and Assembly ones (for MLAs).

Map of new proposed political boundaries for Belfast, with three seats instead of four

Map of new proposed political boundaries for Belfast, with three seats instead of four

At the time the blueprints were first unveiled last year unionists had voiced concerns, including about the idea of expunging the word ‘Londonderry’ from the map by replacing the area largely covered by the East Londonderry constituency with a new one called Glenshane.

However, the parties’ full reactions, revealed on Tuesday, show the full depth of objections to the plans.

Whilst the DUP, UUP, TUV, SDLP and Alliance were all revealed to have sent official responses to the blueprints, Sinn Fein sent nothing.

The commission is not allowed to consider the political ramifications for unionists and nationalists when re-drawing the boundaries.

However, the DUP response (submitted by Michelle McIlveen), said: “While we appreciate it is not a consideration of the commission, we must state that the proposals would produce an unrepresentative political result that would have the potential to have far-reaching and negative political consequences for the constitutional stability of Northern Ireland.”

It did not spell out why, but elections expert Nicholas Whyte last year told the News Letter that the plans for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and North Belfast (then both narrowly held by unionist MPs), for example, look likely to benefit Sinn Fein’s future election prospects.

The DUP said that the plans at present would result in 363,382 voters – “almost one in four” – being placed in “entirely new constituencies”.

The re-drawing of the boundaries is being done because Westminster has essentially decided Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs should be cut to 17, so borders of the electoral areas must move to keep voter numbers roughly equal.

Among the DUP’s objections are to cutting Belfast from four to three seats, splitting Lisburn and Carryduff over two constituencies, and splitting Newtownabbey over four, plus the use of “inappropriate” new names.

It said the commission’s “flawed approach” to re-drawing the map has led to plans which “make statistical sense but very little else”.

The UUP response, from Lord Empey, said “it appears to us that the changes are unnecessarily drastic and in excess of what is required”.

It adds: “Given that you are proposing to reduce Belfast to three constituencies, one would have expected the knock-on effects on other seats to be minimal.

“The fact that a wholesale redrawing of nearly all remaining constituencies and the creation of six entirely new ones has emerged has shocked us.”

Alliance were “broadly supportive” of the plans, including for a three-seat Belfast.

The SDLP said the commission seemed to have taken a “tabula rasa” (blank page) approach to re-drawing the map and said it is “alarmed” by the Belfast plan.

Meanwhile, the TUV concluded “the current suggestions should be scrapped in their entirety”.

These consultation comments from the various parties will now themselves be subject to a consultation until October 2, allowing people to post counter-comments (to do so, go to:

www.bcni2018.uk) .

After that, the commission will consider all submissions and think about whether to revise its plans.

The commission said it is “very welcoming” of feedback, critical or otherwise, and it will be taken into account when considering the next steps.

It had planned to publish the consultation responses above in early 2017, but this was delayed by the collapse of the Executive, followed by two elections.

There had been plans to revamp the Province’s electoral map in about 2007 (called the Fifth Review) which rejected the idea of cutting the constituencies from 18 to 17 or below.

A later plan – the Sixth Review – had considered reducing them to 16, but was aborted.