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Brian Feeney: Bizarre Boundary Commission proposals can't be allowed to stand

A map issued by the Boundary Commission setting out how its revised proposals differ from existing constituencies

Sinn Féin didn’t get much traction for their opposition to the Boundary Commission’s radical revision of its original proposals. Much of the reaction was along the lines of, well they would say that, wouldn’t they?

However the party’s objections can’t be dismissed as easily as that for they contain a lot of substance.

Sinn Féin produced three remarkable maps to support their argument: first the Boundary Commission’s original proposals, then the DUP’s proposals and third, the Commission’s revised proposals.

A glance at the last two maps shows an astonishing correlation between the DUP’s proposals and the Commission’s revision. In fact it appears that the Boundary Commission accepted about 75 per cent of the DUP’s seventy odd proposals.

Unfortunately Sinn Féin did not make any submission to the original proposals. Their explanation, that they didn’t think a political party should be involved in altering constituency boundaries, is breathtaking to say the least. If they had produced a submission it would have been possible to compare their success – or lack of it - in having their suggestions accepted compared to the DUP. Nevertheless the Boundary Commission has a lot of explaining to do to account for doing a series of 180 degree turns from its first constituency map.

The commission had to abide by certain criteria which meant they needed to reduce the number of seats in the north by one to 17. Secondly the number of voters in each constituency has to be between 71,031 and 78,503.

However in the case of the north but nowhere else in the UK there is Rule 7 which allows the commission discretion to vary the number of electors by five per cent to a minimum of 69,403. In their initial plan the commission rejected Rule 7 because using it ‘would not produce a significantly better outcome’. In their latest submission they completely reversed that position and used Rule 7 in no less than five constituencies, six if you include Fermanagh/South Tyrone where they were only seven votes above the quota, 71,038. The net effect, apart from favouring unionism, is that in a third of constituencies votes count for more than elsewhere because you can return an MP or MLA with fewer electors.

The Boundary Commission is not allowed to take electoral outcomes of their decisions into account, a disingenuous position since they gave in to an intense unionist campaign to restore Fermanagh/South Tyrone to virtually its existing boundary. The proposals they accepted by the DUP and UUP were motivated ONLY by electoral outcomes and they got almost precisely what they wanted. Upper Bann was also transformed back into a unionist seat.

Most seriously the Westminster constituencies are the basis for assembly seats. The result of the current proposals is that in four constituencies, North Down, Mid Down, East Belfast and East Antrim, maybe South Antrim too, no nationalist will be elected to an assembly; that’s 20 out of 85 seats automatically for unionists.

These proposals create an assembly configuration for years ahead which in effect will restore the unionist position they lost in 2017. They fly in the face of social and demographic changes. They give greater weight to votes east of the Bann. They ignore the commission’s own criteria when they don’t suit unionists. For example, they maintain the integrity of Ballymena, Ballymoney and Coleraine but divide Dungiven among three constituencies.

Perhaps the icing on the cake for the DUP is the end of Sylvia Hermon, the best unionist MP this century, a standing rebuke to the silent cowardice of middle-class unionists and a thorn in the side of the DUP.

These bizarre and biased proposals can’t be allowed to stand. There’s only until Monday to submit objections. After that the only option is a judicial review to test whether the Boundary Commission has applied its own criteria by supporting the DUP’s plot if not to turn the clock back, at least to grapple with its hands.

The other possibility is that the whole scheme for the UK will be thrown out at Westminster because there are enough MPs on all sides who are aggrieved by proposals to abolish their constituencies in order to get down from 650 to 600 seats and enhance the Conservatives’ prospects of remaining in government in perpetuity.

 

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