Gerry Lynch: First Past the Post is now harming unionism because it is concentrated around Belfast

The UK is set to lose 50 seats at Westminster with Northern Ireland not exempt from what are set to be radical boundary changes across the Kingdom.

Friday, 9th September 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 12th September 2016, 5:00 pm
Map of the new proposed political boundaries for Northern Ireland (renamed constituencies in purple)

With Northern Ireland’s healthy population growth in recent years, the province is set to lose only one of its existing 18 seats.

Additionally, some large differences in electorate size have developed, and the Boundary Commissioners are required to keep these variances below 5%.

No doubt, all the parties will challenge the commissioners’ proposals during the next phase of the review, but the concentration of unionist voters in greater Belfast and County Antrim is now starting to make First Past The Post harmful to Unionists.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 15th April 2010 - Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye - Alliance Party Westminster election 2010 candidate launch atb the East Point in east Belfast. Gerry Lynch at the launch.

Belfast, reduced to three seats, could fail to return a Unionist MP for the foreseeable future.

Belfast South West covers Sinn Féin heartlands from Ballymurphy to the Lagmore Estate, while in the area from the M1 to the Lagan, votes are spread evenly across all the parties, making it difficult for a strong challenger to emerge.

Belfast North West is massively improved for Sinn Féin, losing Rathcoole and more Unionist parts of Glengormley.

While it gains the whole Greater Shankill, it also gains three Sinn Féin fortress wards along the Falls.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 15th April 2010 - Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye - Alliance Party Westminster election 2010 candidate launch atb the East Point in east Belfast. Gerry Lynch at the launch.

Crucially in a tight election, it also retains two wards in southern Newtownabbey with nationalist majorities.

Belfast South East will be tougher for the DUP, losing Dundonald which accounted for more than Gavin Robinson’s entire majority in 2015, and gaining Alliance-friendly territory around Ravenhill and Rosetta. Nobody knows, however, if any other Alliance figure has the vote-getting power of Naomi Long if she decides not to run.

Newry and Armagh will be marginally safer for Sinn Féin, while the new North Tyrone is also likely to be a safe Sinn Féin seat.

Fermanagh South Tyrone will be a difficult defence for Tom Elliot, losing mixed and majority unionist areas around Dungannon and gaining more nationalist villages around Fintona and Castlederg.

The new Glenshane, covering most of rural County Londonderry, will also be difficult for unionists, with an estimated unionist vote of 43% in the supercouncil elections compared with 40% for Sinn Féin alone.

A joint unionist candidate might scrape through here, but Sinn Féin will be the bookies’ favourites.

The redrawn Upper Bann and Blackwater is also more challenging for unionists, with Dungannon and Coalisland replacing Banbridge.

The DUP will be favourites to retain the seat, as they are comfortably but not overwhelmingly ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party, while unionists combined polled fractionally over 50% in the supercouncil elections.

Sinn Féin are the largest single party on 28% in a very fragmented area, and are credible challengers given a 46% total nationalist vote.

There is more difficult news for the UUP in the East; the radically redrawn South Antrim has added thousands of DUP voters from Lisburn.

This looks to be a safe DUP seat on the new boundaries.

The new West Down is a better UUP prospect, taking in good areas for them from Upper Bann as well as parts of the South Belfast fringe with potential tactical votes from Alliance and SDLP.

The DUP will still be slight favourites, but this looks genuinely competitive between the unionist parties.

East Antrim and Strangford will remain safe DUP seats and the new West Antrim and Causeway look to be the same.

When Sylvia Hermon retires in North Down, the addition of Dundonald will help DUP hopes of succeeding her, although she should be safe for as long as she wishes to remain an MP.

With South Belfast gone, the two remaining SDLP seats of Foyle and South Down are little changed and both safe, especially given tactical voting from unionists.

Proportional Representation means that in Assembly elections many of the changes will even out across the Province, although the SDLP might suffer from the reduction to five seats per constituency, while Alliance may find that the new boundaries around Lisburn, Antrim and Newtownabbey prove to be challenging for them.

• Gerry Lynch is a political commentator and writer. He tweets at @gerrylynch