Constituency shake-up looks set to boost SF: expert

An elections expert has said the planned redrawing of the Province's electoral boundaries 'certainly improves' Sinn Fein's chances in some parts '“ and that the current consultation over the plans is not likely to change anything.

Monday, 12th September 2016, 9:00 am
Updated Thursday, 15th September 2016, 4:24 pm
Map of the new proposed political boundaries for Northern Ireland (renamed constituencies in purple)
Map of the new proposed political boundaries for Northern Ireland (renamed constituencies in purple)

Nicholas Whyte, a visiting professor at the Univeristy of Ulster’s faculty of social science, was speaking after unionist political figures voiced misgivings about what the upshot of the proposed changes might be when it comes to election results.

As reported last week, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland published blueprints for a planned shake-up of the borders of Northern Ireland’s current 18 constituencies – plans which are now open for the public to respond to.

Under them, the number of constituencies would reduce to 17, and many of those which remain will change their shape, their name, or both.

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For example, Belfast South would vanish altogether, and be absorbed into Belfast East and a new constituency called Belfast South West.

New constituencies called Dalriada, Glenshane and West Down would appear, largely replacing North Antrim, East Londonderry, and Upper Bann, respectively.

It had appeared at a glance that the changes could negatively affect unionists in certain seats, and one DUP source had suggested that UUP MP Tom Elliott’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat could be vulnerable due to the changes.

Dr Whyte, who works on the University of Ulster’s massive ARK database (which contains records and analysis from previous elections) said that changed boundaries would have a particularly pronounced effect on the results of Westminster elections, where only a single majority winner is announced per constituency (as opposed to Assembly elections, where several MLAs win seats, using transferable votes).

Asked if the plan to redraw three key seats – Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Belfast North, and East Londonderry – means Sinn Fein are now guaranteed to win there in the next Westminster election, he said: “I think ‘guaranteed’ is going further than I would go.

“I think the clearest case is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the margin of votes in the last election was only 500 in the Ulster Unionists’ favour, and I think if you look at the two electoral areas coming in, they’re both areas where Sinn Fein has got half or more than half of the seats.”

Specifically, these areas are mid and west Tyrone.

This would “strongly improve the chances of regaining the seat” for Sinn Fein.

When it comes to some of the changes in Belfast North (which would instead become Belfast North West, taking in parts of the republican Falls region and excluding loyalist Rathcoole), he said: “I can’t see that other than being helpful for Sinn Fein’s prospects.

“Exactly how helpful, it all depends on many other factors. It certainly improves their chances, let’s put it that way.”

Ultimately, he said: “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”

The commission will then look at these responses, and make any amendments accordingly.

All the new planned constituencies have been drawn up in such a way that they have fairly balanced electorates.

The commission was not permitted to consider the possible unionist-nationlist split of any areas they were redesigning.

During a briefing about the plans last week, a spokesman for the commission had said the plans may change as a result of the consultation – but added that the last time they held such an exercise, some respondents had drawn up amendments for constituencies they felt strongly about, which did not take account of the “ripple effect” any changes would have on other constituencies.

Asked how different he thinks the finished plan will be once the consultation is over, Dr Whyte said: “I’d be surprised if we see more than the shifting of a few wards here and there.

“I’d be very surprised if there’s anything much more than that.”

He said that he had in fact suggested his own plan back in February or March, and that “to be honest the commission’s one is better designed than the one I put forward”.

It was put to him that some unionists are likely to believe that there is a conscious attempt to bolster Catholic/nationalist/republican fortunes, but he said unionists are “in not in a position to preach to anybody about that”.

“If we’re talking about historical gerrymandering, we all know what the history of that is in this part of the world.

“I’ll be more concrete – this is an independent commission. It’s pretty clear what criteria they’ve used to draw up the seats.

“Anybody who thinks they’ve got a better model has now got a chance to put it forward to public scrutiny.”

For more on the consultation, go to: www.bcni2018.uk