DUP criticises Sinn Fein's 'inaction' over changes to electoral map

Nigel Dodds
Nigel Dodds

The DUP has accused Sinn Fein of indulging in hyperbole, stunt politics and sectarian arguments over proposals to redraw Northern Ireland's electoral map.

As the party submitted its response to a public consultation on changing the region's constituency boundaries, deputy leader Nigel Dodds claimed his republican counterparts were trying to cover up for their lack of engagement in the two-year process.

Sinn Fein has reacted angrily to a second draft of plans to cut the number of constituencies from 18 to 17, claiming the proposals blatantly favour the DUP.

The revised map, which was published by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland in January, was radically different to the first draft, which was issued in 2016.

Analysts suggested the initial version could have seen Sinn Fein overtake the DUP as the holder of the largest number of Westminster seats. Based on current voting patterns, the second draft should see the DUP retain its pre-eminence.

Sinn Fein has heavily criticised the changes, claiming they would leave at least four constituencies without any nationalist representation at Westminster or Assembly level.

The party has warned that there can be "no return to the gerrymandering of the past".

It is particularly critical of the plan to split the Co Londonderry town of Dungiven across three parliamentary constituencies.

As the consultation exercise closed on Monday, the DUP highlighted that there are already a number of constituencies in Northern Ireland without a nationalist MLA and claimed any move to guarantee such representation would be the very definition of gerrymandering.

Mr Dodds accused Sinn Fein of trying to mask its failure to engage with the initial public consultation on the 2016 proposals.

"From 2016 until a few weeks ago there was silence from Sinn Fein in relation to this boundary review," said the North Belfast MP.

"Whilst the DUP submitted dozens of pages of detailed information Sinn Fein did not submit a single word. Instead Sinn Fein has resorted to a late campaign of hyperbole, stunt politics and sectarian arguments to cover for their inaction."

He added: "Whilst Sinn Fein have taken to the streets to protest about proposals 'splitting' the town of Dungiven, they made no comment about earlier proposals impacting upon towns like Carryduff, Lisburn, Portadown, Dungannon, Ballymena and Coleraine.

"Each one of those towns would either have been split between two parliamentary constituencies or would have been separated from their immediate hinterland. There wasn't even an email to the Boundary Commission from Sinn Fein about this let lone a white line picket.

"Most absurd however are comments from various Sinn Fein representatives that there should be 'no return to the gerrymandering of the past'. This might make for an easy soundbite and fits well with other vacuous slogans trotted out by Sinn Fein recently.

"However, in the very same breath Sinn Fein demand that new boundaries should ensure nationalist representation in some seats at Assembly level.

"Perhaps it comes as news to Sinn Fein that drawing constituency boundaries to ensure a political outcome is the very dictionary definition of gerrymandering."

Mr Dodds said the second draft was "in no way perfect" but he said it was more in line with the thinking of the majority of local parties, including the nationalist SDLP.

"Far from the perception they are trying to create, Sinn Fein stand isolated from the majority of other parties and independent opinion in terms of the boundary proposals," he said.

"Previous proposals, which Sinn Fein have yet to clearly state if they support or reject, would have seen almost 25% of all Northern Ireland voters placed in entirely new constituencies. It would have seen a number of towns divided in two or hived off from their hinterland and there was no recognition of the urban reality of Belfast in the 21st century.

"These are all issues upon which the DUP engaged with the Boundary Commission. Sinn Fein instead now engages in hyperbole, stunt politics and sectarian arguments to cover years of doing nothing."

Northern Ireland is losing one constituency as part of wider Government plans to reduce the number of seats in the UK from 650 to 600.

How the reduction from 18 to 17 seats is achieved has become the source of political controversy.

The revised proposals ditch a plan to cut the number of seats in Belfast from four to three.

The next step in the process will see the commission submit a final version of the map to the Government, which will add it to plans to reshape the rest of the UK's electoral map. MPs are set to vote on the overall package in the autumn.

Earlier this month, Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew criticised the changes.

"If these boundary changes go ahead, at least four Assembly constituencies will be left without any nationalist representation whatsoever," he said.

"The Boundary Commission was established in 2016 with a remit to reduce the number of constituencies from 18 to 17 and to distribute the electorate in a fair and equitable way across the new constituencies. They published proposals in 2016 which went some way to achieving that.

"However, these were radically revised in the face of DUP opposition and nobody could argue that the new plan is fair, given that it so blatantly advantages the DUP at the expense of the nationalist electorate."

The Boundary Commission has insisted the changes were made impartially and without political interference.