Has the Boundary Commission Done Sinn Fein a Favour?

by Jackie_South on September 24, 2011

Last week, I posted on the impact of the proposed boundary changes on the political parties in London and promised to cover other regions in later posts.  For the second part of this series, I’ve taken a look at the home of the South family of yesteryear, Northern Ireland.  The map below shows the current constituencies.

Whilst the Boundary Commission have still to publish their proposals for Scotland and Wales, they actually managed to get their proposals for Northern Ireland out a little ahead of schedule and at the same time as the proposals for England.  These reduce the current 18 seats down to 16.  Although the legislation gave the Boundary Commission some extra latitude in the province compared to the rest of the country, they have managed to draw up proposals that all fit within the 5% margin of the national average electorate size.

I’ll go into detail on these changes below, but in summary Belfast South (held by the SDLP’s deputy leader Alastair McDonnell) has been abolished and a new seat has been created by merging most of safe unionist East Londonderry and Martin McGuinness’s Mid Ulster.

Some historic constituency names have been lost: Belfast East, Belfast West and Mid Ulster have all had iconic places in the UK’s political history.  Other ‘victims’ are Belfast South, East Antrim, East Londonderry (‘Easts’ seem to have had it bad) and West Tyrone.  And intriguingly, we now have a new seat named after a highwayman.

The next bit explains how I’ve calculated the notional outcomes of last year’s general election on these new boundaries – non-geeks feel free to skip this to the section headed NEW SEATS further down.

…the science bit…

Calculating notional results for Northern Irish seats is a lot more complex than for London.  Firstly, their local elections were this May rather than at the same time as the general election.

Secondly, the picture is confused somewhat where one party or another opted not to run a candidate in the general election: Sinn Fein opted not to run in South Belfast last year to avoid splitting the nationalist vote and thereby avoiding a unionist victory, the DUP didn’t run in North Down to help Independent Sylvia Herman defeat the Ulster Conservative and Unionist party and neither of these unionist parties ran in Fermanagh & South Tyrone in the hope that an independent unionist could defeat Sinn Fein.

But it is the third hurdle that creates the biggest challenge: whilst the constituencies are built up from local districts’ wards as elsewhere, local elections are not fought on a first-past-the-post ward-by-ward basis but on an STV basis that groups 5,6, or 7 single-member wards together into multi-member Electoral Districts (EDs).  Where either the current constituency or the proposed one divides one of these Electoral Districts, this makes things difficult to extrapolate directly.

To get around this, I have allocated wards a share of the first preference votes totalled for each party in that ED from the local elections and then matched these to the general election results.  Then I’ve aggregated these on the basis of the new boundaries.

To explain this further, I’ll use the example of the South family’s ancestral ward of Milford in County Armagh (it’s also the place where the penalty kick was invented).  Milford is one of 5 wards in Armagh district’s Crossmore Electoral District, where the (first preference) results totalled for all the candidates for each party in May were as follows:

  • Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP): 2,265 (38.5%)
  • Sinn Fein: 2,028 (34.5%)
  • Ulster Unionist Party (UUP): 844 (14.4%)
  • Democratic Unionist Party (DUP): 744 (12.7%)

Milford makes up 21% of the ED, so the ward level extrapolation of these results is:

  • SDLP: 478
  • Sinn Fein: 428
  • UUP: 178
  • DUP: 157

Adding all the ward result extrapolations for all the wards across the 7 EDs in the current Newry & Armagh constituency total as follows:

  • Sinn Fein: 18,438 (39.5%)
  • SDLP: 10,593 (22.7%)
  • UUP: 8,904 (19.1%)
  • DUP: 5,596 (12.0%)
  • Independents: 2,904 (6.2%)
  • Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV): 289 (0.6%)

Comparing these to the general election results, you can see that these were pretty close for the four largest parties:

  • Sinn Fein: 18,857 (42.0%)
  • SDLP: 10,526 (23.4%)
  • UUP: 8,558 (19.1%)
  • DUP: 5,764 (12.8%)
  • Independent: 656 (1.5%)
  • Alliance Party: 545 (1.2%)

These generate the following conversion factors that we can apply to each ward for each party:

  • Sinn Fein: 1.02 (i.e. 18,857 divided by 18,438)
  • SDLP: 0.99
  • UUP: 0.96
  • DUP: 1.03
  • Ind: 0.23

Applying these back to the figures for Milford ward give the following notional ward level results:

  • SDLP: 475
  • Sinn Fein: 438
  • UUP: 171
  • DUP: 162

You then total all of these notional ward level results to provide the total notional result for the proposed new constituency.

*** NEW SEATS ***

Welcome back, non-geeks. These are the new seats, with the notional 2010 results on these new boundaries that I have calculated.

Belfast North
All four of the current Belfast seats are wedges stretching from the centre to beyond the city’s boundaries, with Belfast North taking in 11 of Newtowabbey’s 25 wards.  All four seats are a lot smaller than the required average of 76,641 voters, with Belfast North being the largest  with 66,825 whilst the other 3 are between 60,000 and 61,000.

The Boundary Commission has therefore decided to reduce Belfast to three seats, but have decided not to change the wards coming into Belfast North from Newtownabbey.  The result is therefore to push the southern edge of the Belfast North wedge a little further round anti-clockwise, taking in 3 wards from Belfast West.  Doing this now unites Belfast’s Court ED (Greater Shankill) in Belfast North, which ends the anomaly of these strongly unionist and loyalist areas being in such a Republican seat.  This will strengthen the DUP’s hold on the seat, which was slipping in recent years (beating Sinn Fein by only 6% last year).

  • DUP: 16,527 (42%)
  • Sinn Fein: 12,706 (32%)
  • SDLP: 4,612 (12%)
  • UUP: 3,302 (8%)
  • Alliance: 1,858 (5%)
  • Independent: 403 (1%)

Belfast South East
Belfast East and Belfast South both currently stretch beyond the city boundaries into the suburban Castlereagh district.  In the Belfast shake-up, Belfast East cedes 6 these Castlereagh district wards eastwards to Strangford, and its wedge sweeps clockwise to take in 25,000 voters from Belfast South.  Belfast proper provides 56,549 electors in this new seat, with another 16,354 coming in from Castlereagh.

Belfast East was a DUP stronghold from 1979 until last year, when Peter Robinson’s wife’s shenanigans led him to lose his seat to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long.  The notional results suggest that Long would still have won, but with a smaller majority:

  • Alliance Party: 12,696 (31%)
  • DUP: 11,794 (29%)
  • UUP: 7,940 (19%)
  • SDLP: 5,429 (13%)
  • Sinn Fein: 817 (2%) (NB –figure depressed due to not standing in Belfast South)
  • Others: 575 (1%)

However, this ignores the situation in the abolished Belfast South.  This was the middle-class seat of the city, with a slender Protestant majority.  The Nationalist SDLP won the seat in 2005 and Sinn Fein stood aside to help them retain it last year.  The SDLP will have little chance to take Belfast South East, and so some of these voters may vote tactically for the Alliance Party, strengthening Long’s position over this notional result.

Belfast South West
Gerry Adams’ old seat of Belfast West loses its strongly unionist Shankill wards and shifts its boundary eastwards to take in all the Balmoral ED and the city centre Shaftesbury ward from Belfast South.  It retains the strongly Republican parts of the Lisburn district around the Poleglass and Twinbrook estates.

  • Sinn Fein: 22,722 (54%)
  • SDLP: 11,301 (27%)
  • DUP: 2,904 (7%)
  • UUP: 2,902 (7%)
  • Alliance: 2,178 (5%)
  • Others: 366 (1%)

Even though Sinn Fein didn’t actually stand in Belfast South last year, its strength from Belfast West is sufficient to keep the seat safely in its hands on this notional result.  You can probably shift about 1,000 votes from the SDLP to Sinn Fein to get closer to the figures if they had stood in Belfast South.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone
In 2010, the current Fermanagh & South Tyrone was the most marginal seat in the UK: Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won with 21,304 votes, only 4 more than the independent unionist Rodney Connor (a unity candidate backed by both main unionist parties).

The boundary changes add in 6 rural wards from Omagh district in West Tyrone.  I estimate that Sinn Fein get 51% of the vote in those wards, so it should help Gildernew a bit, stretching those 4 votes to a  still slender 1,279 majority:

  • Sinn Fein: 24,686 (46%)
  • Unionists (Connor + DUP + UUP): 23,407 (44%)
  • SDLP: 4,683 (9%)
  • Alliance: 437 (1%)
  • Other independents: 200 (0.4%)

Foyle is the politically correct name for the seat for the city of Derry/ Londonderry.  Officially, the district is called Derry City Council whilst the city itself is still called Londonderry, but ‘Derry’ is used by Catholics and ‘Londonderry’ by Protestants. Rather than decide which term to use for the city’s seat, the Boundary Commission opted in 1983 to name the seat after the River Foyle.  The seat is held by the SDLP’s former leader Mark Durkan.

The proposals double the area of the seat, by taking in 5,172 voters from 3 rural Strabane district wards (currently in West Tyrone).  This new territory doesn’t help Durkan much: both the DUP and Sinn Fein do better than the SDLP there.  Nevertheless, the SDLP still have a 4,117 vote edge in the notional results:

  • SDLP: 17,321 (42%)
  • Sinn Fein: 13,205 (32%)
  • DUP: 6,020 (15%)
  • Other parties: 2,936 (7%)
  • UUP: 1,538 (4%)
  • Alliance: 223 (0.5%)

Where on earth is Glenshane?  This is the new seat formed from the majority of both strongly unionist East Londonderry and strongly republican Mid Ulster – Martin McGuinness’s seat.

Just as the Boundary Commission used ‘Foyle’ to avoid the Derry/ Londonderry controversy, ‘Glenshane’ has been suggested to avoid the same issue for County Londonderry, even though the county has never been called “County Derry” and the name ‘East Londonderry’ fits this new seat better than the current one (which takes in parts of County Antrim).

Glenshane is the name of the mountain pass that carries the main Belfast to Derry road through the Sperrin Mountains, and it links the current two seats: there is a Lower Glenshane ward in Magherafelt district in Mid Ulster and an Upper Glenshane ward in Limavady district in East Londonderry.  Interestingly, Glenshane was named after Shane O’Mullan, an eighteenth century highwayman who operated in the area.  It’s a fairly obscure name, and it remains to be seen if it will last the course: even if Londonderry or Derry is out, surely ‘Sperrin’ or ‘The Sperrins’ would be better, more descriptive names?

You might think that merging the two seats would create a marginal.  In fact, the most unionist parts of East Londonderry, the town of Coleraine and the eastern parts of Coleraine district, are transferring to North Antrim.  Limavady district makes up most of the part that comes into Glenshane and is 57% Catholic.

  • Sinn Fein: 17,877 (40%)
  • DUP: 9,795 (22%)
  • SDLP: 7,284 (16%)
  • UUP: 4,646 (11%)
  • TUV: 4,133 (9%)
  • Alliance: 495 (1%)

So, despite the new seat being marginally more East Londonderry than Mid Ulster (52%-48%), the ‘Highwayman Seat’ should be reasonably safe for Martin McGuiness (or his successor if he becomes President of the Republic of Ireland), unless a unionist unity candidate supported by the DUP, UUP and TUV is put forward.

Lagan Valley
Lagan Valley, based around the City of Lisburn and taking in parts of Counties Antrim and Down, is currently the seat where the DUP gets its largest share of the vote and faces only minor changes.  It keeps all its current wards and has two additional ones added: Aghagallon from Upper Bann and Glenavy from South Antrim.  Both these wards have Catholic majorities but these will be swamped out by the current Lagan Valley territory.

  • DUP: 19,215 (48%)
  • UUP: 8,278 (21%)
  • Alliance: 4,297 (11%)
  • TUV: 3,154 (8%)
  • Sinn Fein: 2,735 (7%)
  • SDLP: 2,538 (6%)

Mid Antrim
This seat includes most of the current East Antrim seat, based around Larne and Carrickfergus, and adds most of Ballymena district from North Antrim including the town itself.  Both these seats are safely held by the DUP and so should the new seat.  The most interesting aspect may be who gets to be the DUP candidate: logically, the candidate should be East Antrim’s MP Sammy Wilson, but Ballymena is the hometown of North Antrim’s MP Ian Paisley Jr.  Given that they are probably the two most reactionary DUP MPs, it isn’t easy to decide which is preferable.

  • DUP: 17,765 (47%)
  • UUP: 6,474 (17%)
  • TUV: 5,224 (14%)
  • Alliance: 3,886 (10%)
  • SDLP: 2,431 (6%)
  • Sinn Fein: 2,033 (5%)
  • Independent: 222 (0.6%)

Mid Tyrone
This is the new name for the seat based on West Tyrone, which has lost some wards to both Fermanagh & South Tyrone and Foyle.  30,000 new electors have then been added from the County Tyrone parts of Mid Ulster.  Mid Tyrone includes the towns of Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown and Coalisland.

Both West Tyrone and Mid Ulster are held by Sinn Fein, and they should comfortably hold Mid Tyrone.

  • Sinn Fein: 23,012 (50%)
  • DUP: 6,624 (14%)
  • UUP: 6,597 (14%)
  • SDLP: 6,554 (14%)
  • Alliance: 1,256 (3%)
  • TUV: 1,214 (3%)
  • Independent: 496 (1%)

Newry & Armagh
There is little change proposed to this strongly Catholic seat: the sole difference is that Tandragee ward has been removed and transferred to Upper Bann.  Tandragee ward has a Protestant majority, so this will only make Newry & Armagh slightly safer for Sinn Fein.

  • Sinn Fein: 18,759 (43%)
  • SDLP: 10,393 (24%)
  • UUP: 8,044 (19%)
  • DUP: 5,447 (13%)
  • Independent: 614 (1%)

North Antrim
North Antrim loses the Paisleys’ base of Ballymena town to Mid Antrim and in return gets two very different areas: firstly, 26,817 electors from the strongly unionist Coleraine town and the eastern sections of Coleraine district and secondly, 4,313 electors from the strongly nationalist Glens of eastern Moyle district.  The outcome is still a strongly DUP seat.  The abolition of East Londonderry may mean a DUP selection tussle between Gregory Campbell and Ian Paisley Jr unless the latter opts for Mid Antrim.

  • DUP: 18,426 (45%)
  • UUP: 6,724 (16%)
  • Sinn Fein: 5,786 (14%)
  • SDLP: 4,181 (10%)
  • TUV: 3,936 (10%)
  • Alliance: 1,471 (4%)
  • Independent: 384 (1%)

North Down
Like Foyle, North Down is an urban seat (based on Bangor and Holywood) that is doubled in area in these proposals through the addition of some rural wards.  In this case, the addition is the entirety of the Ards Peninsula which is currently in Strangford.

North Down has the reputation of being the most British of Northern Ireland’s constituencies, and was the base of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party.  It has had some interesting MPs.  Between 1970 and 1995, it was held by Jim Kilfedder who described himself as the ‘Ulster Popular Unionist Party’ for the last 15 of those years despite, in true Life Of Brianstyle, there being only one of them.  Kilfedder died of a heart attack the day The Daily Telegraph ran a story that Outrage! was planning to out him.

The subsequent by-election was won by Robert McCartney, a Labour Party friendly unionist (Kate Hoey was one of his ‘supporters’ at his ‘introduction’ to the House of Commons) who ended up opposing the Good Friday Agreement.  McCartney also had an idiosyncratic party based around him: the UK Unionist Party.

It looked as if normality had settled in when the Ulster Unionist Party’s Lady Sylvia Hermon beat McCartney in 2001.  But in 2010, that party decided to merge with the Tories, and Hermon left in protest to stand as an independent.  The DUP stood aside for her to take on this Ulster Conservative and Unionist (UCU) Party and she won overwhelmingly.  Licking their wounds (this had been the UUP’s last remaining seat), the Ulster Unionists then de-merged shortly afterwards.

Given this, it isn’t easy to allocate the Unionist party votes for 2010.  To account for  the DUP’s opt out, I’ve shown the figures combining Hermon’s vote with the DUP share coming in from Strangford.

  • Independent Unionist/ DUP: 23,811 (62%)
  • UUP (UCU): 7,971 (21%)
  • Alliance: 2,608 (7%)
  • TUV: 1,634 (4%)
  • Other parties: 1,043 (3%)
  • SDLP: 935 (2%)
  • Sinn Fein: 250 (0.7%)

South Antrim
South Antrim has minimal changes, losing Glenavy ward to Lagan Valley and gaining 6 wards from East Antrim (3 each from Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey districts).  The current South Antrim is DUP held but closely contested by the UUP: William McCrea beat UUP leader Reg Empey by 1,183 votes (3.5%).  The additions are strongly DUP, moving things overall a little in their favour.

  • DUP: 13,646 (35%)
  • UUP: 12,105 (31%)
  • Sinn Fein: 4,662 (12%)
  • Alliance: 3,295 (9%)
  • SDLP: 2,906 (8%)
  • TUV: 1,829 (5%)

South Down
The only change to South Down is the addition of Loughbrickland from Upper Bann.  This nudges things marginally towards to the unionists, but not enough to worry the SDLP’s leader Margaret Ritchie in any way.

  • SDLP: 20,867 (48%)
  • Sinn Fein: 12,420 (28%)
  • DUP: 3,941 (9%)
  • UUP: 3,555 (8%)
  • TUV: 1,506 (3%)
  • Other parties: 901 (2%)
  • Alliance: 560 (1%)

There are some significant changes to this seat, although with a minimal electoral impact: this will remain a safe DUP seat which they managed to hold easily in 2010 despite the scandal of its previous MP Iris Robinson standing down in shame.  The seat loses the Ards Peninsula to North Down and gains sections of Castlereagh district from both Belfast East and Belfast South.

The seat, originally created in 1983, has never included the town of Strangford itself, which is in South Down.  Instead it is named after Strangford Lough, which it currently surrounds.  With the loss of the Ards Peninsula, this is no longer true either and ‘Mid Down’ strikes me as a more accurate name.  However, my guess is that the name will still stick: an attempt to change it in 1997 was opposed locally.

  • DUP: 17,725 (43%)
  • UUP: 10,804 (26%)
  • Alliance: 5,722 (14%)
  • SDLP: 3,162 (8%)
  • TUV: 1,978 (5%)
  • Sinn Fein: 1,161 (3%)
  • Other parties: 657 (2%)

Upper Bann
There are minor changes to Upper Bann, the seat based around northern County Armagh and western County Down which includes the towns of Lurgan, Portadown, Banbridge and Craigavon.  It loses Aghagallon ward (Craigavon district’s part of County Antrim) to Lagan Valley and Loughbrickland ward to South Down, whilst gaining Tandragee ward from Newry & Armagh.

The growing Catholic population in the area has resulted in inter-communal friction, most notably the Drumcree march conflict.  It is also the site of the first sectarian outrage in Northern Ireland: the Portadown Massacre of 1641.

This used to be David Trimble’s seat until the DUP won it off him in 2005.  The current seat is just about a three-way marginal, with the DUP holding a majority of 3,361 (8.1%) over the UUP and 3,763 (9.1%) over Sinn Fein.  The proposed changes make the seat a little safer for the DUP.

  • DUP: 13,892 (36%)
  • UUP: 10,255 (26%)
  • Sinn Fein: 8,913 (23%)
  • SDLP: 4,447 (11%)
  • Alliance: 1,231 (3%)
  • Independent: 42 (0.1%)


The map above summarises these outcomes.  In summary, it looks as if the proposals mean that the DUP and the SDLP will lose a seat each (East Londonderry and Belfast South respectively), with no change for Sinn Fein and the other parties.  The unionist parties have been wiped out in the three western counties.

It looks as if the creation of the Highwayman’s Seat and the abolition of Belfast South has helped Sinn Fein get one over on the DUP and the SDLP.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete Whitehead September 26, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Good work. I also worked out some notional results for NI which I posted here http://www.vote-2007.co.uk/index.php?topic=5806.45
We seem to be in pretty strong agreement about the likely outcomes which is quite encouraging. I do have some questions about your methodology. It isn’t very clear from your Milford example, but are you treating the wards of each EA as if they vote along the same lines as the EA as a whole.? If so this is oging to lead to some fairly misleading results in some areas.


FJGarrod January 31, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Thanks for all the hard work. Have been looking at your figures for N Ireland. Can you check you figures for Strangford and for Upper Bann. For both of them they have the same DUP totals 13892 and UUP 10255 totals.


FJ Garrod February 12, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Re my last The figures I gave were of course the current boundaries. My figures for the new boundaries are:

DUP 18280
UUP 11153
SF 9111
SDLP 6373
Alliance 1231
Ind 42

Maj DUP over UUP 7127 (15.0%)
Total votes cast 46190

Thus your write-up needs correcting for the new boundaries to say ‘a lot safer for the DUP and no longer a three-way marginal.


Kevin Patrick March 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I used the figures to work out what would happen if PR STV were used using a variety of possiblities and the most interesting thing was Naomi Long of Alliance has a far better chance of holding her seat with first past the post than with PR and the Ulster Unionists would probaly gain three seats.


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