New NI Boundary Changes Make Smaller Parliament More Likely

by Jackie_South on February 5, 2018

Last week, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland released its revised recommendations for the province’s constituencies. These recommendations were significantly better for the DUP than the previous draft proposals.

That makes it more likely that the DUP will now vote with the Conservatives in the Commons to approve the proposed changes to constituencies across the UK , which reduce the number of MPs nationally from 650 to 600 – largely at the expense of Labour.

What has changed?

As we know, Theresa May is propped up in power in the House of Commons through an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP are in that pivotal position in part because they won their highest ever number of MPs in the 2017 general election: ten of the eighteen seats for Northern Ireland.

The map below shows that current state of play: those ten DUP seats in orange (mainly in the north and east of the province), seven of the other MPs are from Sinn Fein (largely in the south and west, although they never take their seats in Parliament) and the remaining MP is Sylvia Hermon, an independent unionist in North Down.

As part of the reduction of the number of constituencies nationally, Northern Ireland will see its tally fall from 18 seats to 17.

When the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland drew up its first set of draft recommendations in September 2016, this lost seat was in Belfast, where the DUP now hold three of the four seats. This reduction was bad news for the DUP: not only was the lost seat clearly one of theirs (effectively Belfast South) but the knock-on impact on Belfast North was enough to switch that seat to Sinn Fein.

Elsewhere, changes in rural Northern Ireland would have moved another seat (the sucessor to Upper Bann) into the Sinn Fein column, based on the 2017 general election result.

These projections are taken from the work done by Electoral Calculus on the draft recommendations, which can be found here.

Clearly, the DUP would not be wanting boundaries that would have cost them three of the ten seats won in the last election – on the same results – to arrive anytime soon. Worse, their loses would have helped Sinn Fein gain two more MPs. It is clear that the DUP would have voted in Parliament to prevent these changes being put in place.

There were a number of other criticisms: the current Belfast split into four seats feels a more natural ordering than this three seat model, as I’ll explain later. The Glengormley area of Newtownabbey (just northeast of Belfast) would have been split into four constituencies (Belfast North West and the East, South and West Antrim constituencies). Voters in Dungannon have historically always been part of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, rather than being linked to the Craigavon conurbation (in the unwieldy-named Upper Bann and Blackwater constituency). What on earth are Dalriada and Glenshane?

It appears from the revised recommendation report of the Boundary Commission that everyone had some criticism, although it also appears as if the unionist parties put much more work into their responses.

The outcome? The Commission radically redrew their recommendations, making use of a get-out clause given to them by Parliament.

Nationally, the rules set by Parliament state that every constituency in the UK (unless it is an island or set of islands without a bridge linking to the mainland) must fall within a 5% tolerance level of the national average electorate size: meaning that every constituency must have between 71,031 and 78,507 electors. The draft proposals above strictly adhered to that rule.

The new recommendations do not: they make use of a clause for Northern Ireland that allows the minimum to be 69,403 if the Commission felt that this was needed to meet discretionary factors relating to community ties, size and shape of seats, and local government links.

Five of the proposals on the new set of recommendations make use of that flexibility, four of which where the DUP start ahead: Belfast East, Belfast South, Mid Antrim and Upper Bann. The fifth, West Tyrone, would be a safe Sinn Fein constituency.

The map below shows the revised recommendations, together with the projected winner, using the ward-by-ward estimates provided by Electoral Calculus.

I’ll go into this seat by seat below, but the quick takeaway from this is that the changes would ensure that the DUP would have retained ten MPs using these boundaries and the 2017 results, as would Sinn Fein. The loser would be independent Sylvia Hermon in North Down. What is more, the proposals make it slightly easier for the DUP to hold some of its more marginal seats.

Four current constituency names are lost and three new ones created, but it is arguably one of the constituencies whose name lives on that has been abolished: South Antrim.

The new constituencies

Belfast

The new proposals keep four constituencies in Belfast, which each currently have a character of their own. There is the solidly working class but culturally divided North constituency, the overwhelmingly Protestant constituency divided into working and middle-class areas (Belfast East), there is the mainly middle class constituency (Belfast South) and finally the solidly working class, overwhelmingly Catholic Belfast West.

Back when the boundaries first used in 1997 were being drawn up, there had been a previous proposal to reduce the number of Belfast constituencies from four to three to reflect the city’s falling population, which were rejected then for similar reasons. The fix then was to create a new Northern Ireland constituency to ensure the rest of the province was not under-represented and then to stretch the four constituencies to take in areas outside of the city boundaries – often to reflect where the city’s population had in fact moved out to.

The new recommendations take this approach: each adding new areas that lie beyond the city’s (recently expanded) boundaries. In each case below, the figures in brackets represent the proportion of the new seat coming in from a current constituency.

  1. Belfast East – Safe DUP
    (Belfast East 88%, North Down 10%, Belfast South 2%)

    Whilst the first draft proposals moved the Dundonald area east of the city boundaries to North Down, the new proposals reverse that move by moving the affluent suburbs around Holywood from North Down into Belfast East.Whilst Belfast East was an Alliance Party seat between 2010 and 2015, that increasingly looks like a historic aberration resulting from its previous MP Peter Robinson’s difficulties at the time: the DUP’s Gavin Robinson (no relation) had a 20% majority over the Alliance in 2017.

    The changes work slightly against the DUP: the pattern in the constituency is that its working class areas in the inner city (including the Titanic Quarter and George Best airport) and areas beyond the city limits (around Dundonald) vote DUP, whilst the middle class areas in the suburbs within the city boundaries (including the Northern Irish Assembly buildings at Stormont) are where the Alliance does better. Holywood would fit the latter grouping better, reducing Robinson’s notional majority slightly to 18% on our calculations.

  2. Belfast North – DUP marginal
    (Belfast North 83%, South Antrim 12%, East Antrim 6%)

    The DUP’s parliamentary leader, Nigel Dodds, is probably a worried man regarding his political future. Last year, his majority in this religiously-split constituency was only 2,000, or 4.5%, over Sinn Fein. What is worse, it would only take the SDLP’s voters to switch over to Sinn Fein for that majority to be wiped out.The first draft proposals were more than enough to finish the job: the renamed Belfast North West would have lost some areas outside the city boundaries in Newtownabbey whilst gaining parts of solidly Republican West Belfast around the Lower Falls area (pretty much the most strongly pro-Sinn Fein community in the entire country). Electoral Calculus gave Sinn Fein a 6% lead in that version of the seat.

    The revised recommendations must therefore have elicited a sigh of relief from Dodds: no Lower Falls, and the addition of more areas outside the city boundaries from Newtownabbey. This includes taking in the whole of the Glengormley area, which was split four ways in the first draft recommendations. Glengormley isn’t overwhelmingly Protestant (about 60%) but that is more so than the current constituency. Our projection would increase the DUP majority to a still marginal 7%.

  3. Belfast South – DUP marginal
    (Belfast South 91%, Strangford 4%, Lagan Valley 3%, Belfast East 2%)

    This is the Belfast constituency that  has grown most in area, but in electorate terms it has changed least. This is the more affluent Belfast constituency, covering the areas around Queen’s University as well as the city centre. The new boundaries stretch outside of the city to take in the County Down communities of Carryduff, Drumbo and Moneyreagh.SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell held the seat between 2005 and 2017, but lost it to the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly last year by almost 2,000 votes (4.6%), partly through Sinn Fein gaining ground but more from Ulster Unionist Party supporters switching parties. Our calculations suggest that Little-Pengelly’s majority would have been just shy of 10% on the new boundaries.

  4. Belfast West – safe Sinn Fein
    (Belfast West 84%, Lagan Valley 8%, Belfast North 8%)

    This is the most Republican constituency in Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein’s majority is over 50% here (53,4% in fact). Sinn Fein’s majority has been over 50% in every election since 2005.The boundary changes will chip away at that, but not by enough to make any real difference. The new seat stretches further to the south, taking in the strongly protestant Lambeg ward from Lagan Valley as well as the Catholic Derryaghy ward, and further north, to take in parts of the strongly Unionist Shankill area (the remainder of which is already in Belfast West). We calculate that this would reduce Paul Maskey’s majority to a still unassailable 41%.

Counties Antrim, Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh

Whilst lumping together four of the six counties seems a little strange, it makes sense given the proposals. We’ll start with the one that changes least…

5. Fermanagh and South Tyrone – Sinn Fein marginal
(Fermanagh & South Tyrone 98%, Mid Ulster 2%)

Whilst the draft recommendations suggested moving southeast Tyrone (around Dungannon) out of the constituency and southwest Tyrone (around Castlederg and Fintona) in, the new recommendations pretty much leave this constituency unchanged from its current form, just tidying up some boundaries where new wards cross the current ones.

This is a majority Catholic constituency, but it has changed hands between Republicans and Ulster Unionists seven times in my lifetime, along the way including hunger-striker Bobby Sands’ 1981 by-election victory as an Anti H-Block candidate that paved the way for Sinn Fein’s entry into electoral politics.

Recent results have been very tight: Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew had a majority of only 4 in 2010, before Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott won it by 530 votes in 2015. Gildernew won it back last year by 875 votes (1.7%). Our projections increase this slightly to a princely 2.4% on the new boundaries.

6. West Tyrone – safe Sinn Fein
(West Tyrone 90%, East Londonderry 10%)

West Tyrone, based around the towns of Omagh and Strabane, was created in 1997 as the eighteenth Northern Irish constituency. The Ulster Unionists won it narrowly in that election but it has been in Sinn Fein’s hands since 2001, never with a majority of less than 10%. Barry McEldruff became its new MP last year with a majority of 24%.

McEldruff’s recent resignation, following a YouTube video that many thought mocked the 1976 Kingsmill Massacre, means that West Tyrone is likely to be the first by-election of the current Parliament.

The proposed boundary changes render the constituency name less accurate than it is currently: these stretch the constituency across the Sperrin mountains into southwestern County Londonderry, including the villages of Claudy and Feeny. It loses the small Tyrone village of Bready to the revised Foyle constituency.

This all has little change on the political outcome: our projections show a Sinn Fein majority of 22% in the new seat but that slight dip may be due to voters in the predominantly Catholic new areas not bothering to vote in the previously strongly unionist East Londonderry constituency.

7. Mid Ulster – safe Sinn Fein
(Mid Ulster 91%, East Londonderry 9%)

Mid Ulster, taking in the east of County Tyrone around Cookstown and Coalisland and  the southeast of County Londonderry around Magherafelt, is strongly Republican. This was Martin McGuinness’s seat between 1997 and 2013 and his successor Francie Molloy had a 28% majority in last year’s election.

The proposals stretch the constituency north to take in three settlements currently in the East Londonderry constituency: Dungiven, Garvagh and Kilrea. Garvagh is a protestant village, whilst Kilrea is predominantly Catholic and the small town of Dungiven overwhelmingly so. Our projections suggest that all this would reduce Molloy’s majority slightly to 24%, but like West Tyrone that may just be because this majority Catholic area’s voice had not really been heard in the strongly unionist East Londonderry constituency.

8. Foyle – Sinn Fein marginal
(Foyle 99%, West Tyrone 1%)

The proposed changes to Foyle – the constituency for the city of Derry/Londonderry – are minimal: the small village of Bready has been added from West Tyrone to reflect new ward boundaries introduced when Derry and Strabane councils were merged in 2015.

Since its creation in 1983, Foyle was the redoubt of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), most notably in the form if John Hume who served as its MP between 1983 and 2005. However his successor, Mark Durkan, lost the constituency to Sinn Fein in last year’s general election by 169 votes (0.4%).

The minimal boundary change would notionally nudge this Sinn Fein majority to 0.5%. This is likely to still be a tight race next time between the two nationalist parties.

9. Causeway – safe DUP
(East Londonderry 72%, North Antrim 27%, East Antrim 1%)

Whilst the Giant’s Causeway, which lends its name to this newly titled constituency, is in County Antrim this constituency is really the successor to the current East Londonderry constituency.

Under the new proposals East Londonderry, based around the university town of Coleraine, the smaller town of Limavady (famous for giving the world the song Danny Boy) and the coastal resorts of Portrush and Portstewart , loses its southern territory to the northward expansion of the Mid Ulster and West Tyrone constituencies, and makes up for this loss by adding in the coastal areas from the current North Antrim seat around Ballymoney and Ballycastle, together with the area around the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills, Rathlin Island and a small section of East Antrim.

The DUP’s Gregory Campbell had a 22% majority last year over Sinn Fein. The new boundaries notionally improve that to 24%.

10. Mid Antrim – safe DUP
(North Antrim 79%, South Antrim 20%, East Antrim 1%)

The loss of coast to the Causeway constituency means that the North Antrim constituency has had to change its name and take in parts of the South Antrim constituency that lie to the north of the town of Antrim and Lough Neagh. Whilst this means that areas very close to Antrim town are now in a different constituency to it, there is a strong logic to the new seat: focused on the large town of Ballymena.

North Antrim was Ian Paisley’s constituency for 40 years, before his son (imaginatively named Ian Paisley junior) took the reins in 2010. Paisley junior had a majority of 43% over Sinn Fein in last year’s general election. We calculate that the new boundaries would shave this majority down to 42%, but that is unlikely to cause the DUP any loss of sleep.

11. East Antrim – safe DUP
(East Antrim 78%, South Antrim 22%)

This strongly unionist coastal constituency is based around the port town of Larne, Carrickfergus, with its Norman castle and the eastern part of Newtownabbey, in particular the university area of Jordanstown. In the north, it also takes in much of the Glens of Antrim – the only nationalist area in the constituency.

Under the proposals, small sections are lost to the Causeway and Mid Antrim constituencies and sections of South Antrim, around Ballyclare (where Jonathan Swift preached), are brought in. Overall, this has the effect of reducing the DUP’s Sammy Wilson’s majority over the Ulster Unionist Party slightly from 41% to 36%.

12. South Antrim – safe DUP
(Lagan Valley 61%, South Antrim 39%)

Despite the name, this constituency is more the successor of the current Lagan Valley constituency, a safe DUP seat held by Jeffrey Donaldson, than the current South Antrim constituency, a DUP-UUP marginal won by the DUP’s Paul Girvan last year.

Lagan Valley is based on Northern Ireland’s third largest city, Lisburn, which straddles both the River Lagan and the county Antrim-Down border, and the proposed constituency takes in a sliver of County Down along the banks of the Lagan, including the site of the old Maze prison. Further north, the seat stretches between the western edge of Belfast and Lough Neagh, taking in the pretty town of Antrim and the area around Belfast International Airport from South Antrim.

The new seat has some similarity to the pre-1983 version of the South Antrim constituency, which also included Lisburn and Antrim.

Donaldson – a former Ulster Unionist Party MP who switched to the DUP in 2004 – has a majority of over 19,000 (43%) over his former party. Girvan’s majority over the UUP is a more modest 3,208 (7.4%). At 31%, the notional new majority for the DUP over the UUP is closer to Donaldson’s than Girvan’s.

County Down

Whilst small parts of County Down will fall outside, the new proposals neatly fit most of the county into three constituencies, not unnaturally named North, South and Mid Down.

13. North Down – DUP marginal
(North Down 79%, Strangford 21%)

North Down has been a bit of an electoral oddity over the years, a constituency sometimes described as the most British part of Northern Ireland. Its main town, the coastal resort of Bangor, certainly feels like an English seaside town.

In 1977, Ulster Unionist James Kilfedder left his party in protest to its acquiescence to reduced autonomy for  the province. Kilfedder successfully tood as an Independent Unionist in 1979, before being elected as its Ulster Popular Unionist Party MP (which in true Life of Brian style, he was the only one) in 1983, 1987 and 1992.

Kilfedder died in 1995 and another individualist unionist, Robert McCartney (a hard-line unionist with a leftwing domestic agenda), this time labelled as the UK Unionist Party, won the subsequent by-election and in 1997. The constituency however looked as if it was returning to the political fold in 2001, when Sylvia Hermon, wife of the former chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, won the seat off McCartney for the Ulster Unionist Party. In the DUP wave of 2005, she was the only UUP MP left standing.

That changed however when the UUP decided to join the Conservative Party for the 2010 general election. Hermon, who had worked well with Labour at Westminster, promptly left the UUP and stood as an independent, holding her seat and winning again in 2015 and 2017.

Last year’s election however was close: Hermon had a majority of only 1,208 votes (3%) over the DUP. That majority would probably have been wiped out if the currently proposed boundaries were in use: the seat loses Holywood to Belfast East and then gains the Ards peninsula (the arm of land separating Strangford Lough from the Irish Sea) from the current Strangford constituency. The latter is strong DUP territory and we calculate that the new constituency would have had a 7% DUP majority over Hermon in last year’s election.

14. Mid Down – safe DUP
(Strangford 59%, Lagan Valley 23%, Upper Bann 16%, South Down 2%)

Our third new name (and the third Northern Irish seat prefaced by “Mid”) is the successor to the slightly oddly named Strangford consitutency. The County Down village of Strangford is both small and just outside of the constituency that bears its name – instead the seat is named for the Lough rather than the settlement.

The current Strangford constituency, based around the town of Newtownards at the head of Strangford Lough together with a number of Belfast commuter villages and areas around the Lough, is a safe DUP seat: Jim Shannon has a majority of over 18,000 (47%) over his nearest rival, the Alliance Party.

Strangford loses territory mainly to North Down and also to Belfast South. As a consequence, it no longer surrounds Strangford Lough and instead now forms a crescent looping south of Belfast and Lisburn to take in parts of the west of the county around Banbridge, Dromore and Hillsborough (famous for its castle, the Queen’s official residence in the province). In between are the small towns of Ballynahinch and Comber, together with large villages such as Saintfield.

These changes would reduce the DUP’s majority, but not by much: we calculate that Shannon’s lead would have been 42%, in this case over the UUP rather than the Alliance.

The one interesting issue to watch might be whether it is Shannon that would run. Given that the DUP have no net loss in seats but have South Antrim effectively abolished, it may be that Paul Girvan gets to keep his nominal seat for South Antrim and that it is Donaldson that goes for Mid Down and Shannon the now DUP-leaning North Down if an arrangment is made to keep all the current DUP MPs seated.

15. South Down – Sinn Fein marginal
(South Down 94%, Strangford 2%, Upper Bann 2%, Newry & Armagh 1%)

South Down is a strongly nationalist constituency that rings the Mourne Mountains, taking in the cathedral town of Downpatrick, the coastal resort of Newcastle, fishing port of Kilkeel and the picturesque port town of Warrenpoint. Further inland are small villages, such as Rathfriland and Castlewellan. The SDLP are strongest around Downpatrick and Warrenpoint, Sinn Fein around Newcastle, Kilkeel and the area outside Newry. The DUP have support in parts of the north of the seat.

The proposed changes are minor: adding in the villages of Loughbrickland (Upper Bann) and Killyleagh (Strangford) and a few other small areas to align with new ward boundaries around Newry.

South Down was once Enoch Powell’s seat (between October 1974 and 1987) when he defected from the Conservatives to the UUP. Eddie McGrady won the seat for the SDLP in 1987, bequeathing it to his party colleague Margaret Ritchie in 2010. Last year, Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard rather surprisingly won it off her with a 9.3% swing. Our projection shows his 4.8% majority over the SDLP would dip slightly to 4.5% on the new boundaries.

County Armagh and Newry

Last, but certainly in my mind far from least, we come to County Armagh, the land that reared my grandfather and generations of Souths before him. The city of Newry is technically in both Counties Armagh and Down (its town hall straddles the River Clanrye which forms the county border) but it makes more sense to consider it here.

16. Newry and Armagh – safe Sinn Fein
(Newry & Armagh 97%, South Down 2%, Fermanagh & S Tyrone 1%)

Newry is a predominantly Catholic city, and South Armagh was infamously the IRA’s bandit country during the Troubles. The cathedral city of Armagh is slightly more mixed, although Catholics still out-number Protestants there two-to-one. The countryside east of Armagh though is more unionist in its support.

The constituency was created in 1983, and narrowly won by the UUP. In 1986, all the province’s unionist MPs resigned in protest against the Anglo-Irish agreement and Newry & Armagh was the constituency that changed hands in the subsequent by-election: the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon then held the constituency until he retired in 2005. Sinn Fein then won the seat, and Mickey Brady had a 23% majority over the DUP in last year’s election (the SDLP having fallen back into third place in 2015).

The proposed boundary changes are minor: the constituency actually had to lose a few electors due to its growth in population and this is mainly through the transfer of the large village of Tandragee in the northeast of the constituency to Upper Bann. There are also some other minor adjustments to align with ward boundaries.

As Tandragee is a 90% Protestant village, this makes the constituency slightly safer for Sinn Fein. Our estimate increases Brady’s majority to 26%.

17. Upper Bann – safe-ish DUP
(Upper Bann 94%, Newry & Armagh 5%, Fermanagh & S Tyrone 1%)

The current Upper Bann constituency is based around the Craigavon conurbation – a partially successful new town designated to link the north Armagh towns of Portadown and Lurgan – and Banbridge in County Down. The Boundary Commission proposals remove Banbridge and add Tandragee, so that the vast majority of electors now live in County Armagh. Small parts of County Down and Antrim remain in the seat.

Portadown is a largely Protestant town, although not entirely as the annual controversy around the Drumcree march through the town attests. Lurgan is predominantly Catholic. The boundary commission’s original proposal to link the Craigavon area with Dungannon to the west would have been enough to eliminate the 16% majority that the DUP’s David Simpson gained over Sinn Fein in last year’s election. Electoral Calculus estimated that Sinn Fein’s lead would have been 10% in that “Upper Bann and Blackwater” constituency.

The revised proposals will therefore be a relief to Simpson. By low-balling the electorate size needed (69,795 electors, as opposed to the usual minimum of 71,031) the Commission have managed to drop the Dungannon idea and instead bring in the more unionist-leaning parts of Newry and Armagh.

The loss of Banbridge still brings Simpson’s notional majority down a little, but to a still reasonably safe 13%. Whilst further demographic changes might shift the balance in the constituency at some time in the future, it is likely to remain in the DUP’s hands for a while yet.

CONCLUSION

The latest proposals by the Boundary Commission seem to make stronger sense of local communities than their first draft. They certainly seem to better fit the current constituencies. However, the fix to do this, in having electorates in a number that are below the normally permitted minimum, is likely to prompt the losers in the process to call foul. Indeed, Sinn Fein already have.

The definite gainers are the DUP. Their 2017 haul of ten MPs was their best ever result, and permitted them to become power-brokers in the current hung Parliament. Despite the province losing a seat, they would keep that number of MPs under these arrangements. They would also make marginal seats such as Belfast North, Belfast South and South Antrim safer.

All in all, if the DUP were reticent to vote for the new boundary changes in Parliament under the previous proposals, they should be jumping at the prospect now.

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