Northern Ireland news

Analysis: Boundary changes are necessary but that won't stop people complaining

The latest changes to constituency boundaries will apply to both Westminster and Stormont elections. Picture by Rui Vieira/PA Wire

CHANGES to electoral boundaries arguably mean little to the man or woman in the street.

But it's something that certainly exercises political parties who believe any modifications may disadvantage them, while sometimes an individual voter is unhappy that overnight their home moves from a majority unionist constituency to a majority nationalist one – or vice-versa.

Some of the proposals outlined yesterday, the first change since 2008, are deemed controversial, so a degree of disgruntlement on all sides is anticipated.

Residents of the predominantly nationalist town of Downpatrick, for instance, are unlikely to welcome the latest recommendation that the town and surrounding area shift from South Down (sitting MP Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard) into the newly created Strangford & Quoile constituency, where a unionist is more likely to take the Westminster seat. These same constituency boundary changes will also apply to assembly elections, though next year’s scheduled poll will be unaffected.

Yet it’s worth noting, there are no less than three public consultations between now and 2023, when the Boundary Commission makes its final recommendations, so what was published yesterday is far from set in stone.

And let’s remind ourselves that the commission previously sought to redraw the UK-wide constituency map and reduce the overall number of seats from 650 to 600 in 2018, an exercise that was ultimately abandoned by the Tories last year. Those proposals, which would have seen Belfast lose one of its four constituencies as the north’s overall number was cut to 17, were also ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal in Belfast following a legal challenge.

The reasons for the latest proposed changes are quite simple but also a bit technical. In theory, each constituency must have a roughly equal number of people to ensure our legislatures – Westminster and Stormont – are representative of the population, an average of 73,393 voters in each. For a number of reasons it is impractical to try and make all constituencies have exactly the same number of voters, so the Boundary Commission is permitted leeway of five per cent either way, which means a constituency can have as many as 77,062 or as few as 69,724.

Under the current arrangements, only seven of the north’s 18 constituencies fall within this range. Upper Bann, for example, currently has a total electorate of 83,028, while West Tyrone’s is 66,339. The disparity between the two – 16,689 – is actually greater than the number of votes West Tyrone MP Órfhlaith Begley received at the last Westminster election – 16,544.

The above illustrates clearly the pressing need to balance the numbers in each constituency, however, the exercise is likely to be met with numerous objections, ranging from alleged gerrymandering to the erosion of people’s identity. Some MPs and MLAs will not be happy either but it is hoped that if the commission listens to legitimate concerns and, within reason, tweaks its plans accordingly then we should hopefully achieve something that while not to everybody’s taste, can at least withstand a court challenge.

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