It has been years in the making, and now the final blueprint has been unveiled for how the Province’s political map will look – with the UUP saying the changes will bring “no benefit” to unionists.
A number of long-standing and familiar constituency names look set to vanish (including North Antrim, East Londonderry, West Tyrone and Lagan Valley) as part of the drive to cut the number of constituencies from 18 to 17.
However other contentious ideas contained in the Boundary Commission’s earlier drafts – such as the plan to segment Belfast into thirds instead of quarters, and the notion of dividing the small town of Dungiven along the length of its high street – have been binned.
The reaction from unionists was fairly cautious today, as parties worked to digest the full suite of changes.
But both the Ulster Unionists and electoral expert Nicholas Whyte believe the net result – at least as far as Westminster elections go – is likely to be that unionism will end up down one seat.
Sinn Fein repeatedly condemned a previous draft of the plans as “gerrymandering”.
Today, the UUP’s Lord Empey said that “we utterly reject any claims that that these final recommendations are in any way a benefit to unionists”.
He said: “In the reduction form 18 seats to 17, it is a unionist seat that has disappeared, as the old South Antrim and Lagan Valley seats [both held now by the DUP] are effectively merged into one.
“Quite how the loss of a seat benefits unionism is a mystery to me and for others to explain.”
Nevertheless, he said the final plans are still an “improvement” on earlier, more radical proposals.
His view on the outcome for unionism was shared by Professor Whyte, who said he expects unionist seats to decline from 11 out of 18, to 10 out of 17, for similar reasons.
Meanwhile, he suggests Sinn Fein will retain its current complement of seven.
When it comes to the tinkering with boundaries in the west and south of the Province, Sinn Fein looks set to be “gaining territory which is at least as favourable as what they’ve currently got”.
He added: “The seats that are changed least are the four Belfast seats and the seats along the border. And Sinn Fein holds West Belfast and all of the border seats. Sinn Fein will complain about it, no doubt, but actually it’s not a bad outcome for them.”
A statement from the DUP said: “The party has engaged with the commission throughout this process, making detailed submissions on a ward-by-ward basis at each stage. We note the final recommendations have been published. We will now study these in detail.”
The first draft of the changes was issued in 2016. Since then, the blueprints have been put out to public consultation, then there was a consultation on the resulting consultation responses, before a new draft of the plans was done earlier this year. A further consultation was then held on that.
The final plans were today laid before parliament, and it will now be for MPs to either accept the changes (including changes to England, Scotland and Wales) wholesale, or reject them.
If accepted, it is expected they will apply to the next set of Stormont and Westminster elections.
No ratification of the plans is needed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
If they are rejected, then the next chance for change is likely to be several years away, when the Boundary Commission’s next routine review of boundaries will take place.