SDLP sponsoring Poots’ boundary skulduggery?

Over on OConall Street, Conall McDevitt notes that the gerrymandering row developing over the decision of the Environment Minister to reject the final recommendations of the Local Government Boundary Commissioner, would appear to have been partially motivated by a desire to mollify the complaints of unionist representatives in Castlereagh, angered at the anticipated loss of the rate income from the Forestside shopping centre. Such political skulduggery is also in evidence at the other end of the new Lisburn/ Castlereagh DUP fiefdom, but this time Minister Poots has been able to claim that the SDLP have supported his decision to reject the final recommendations of the Local Government boundary commissioner and unilaterally redraw the electoral boundaries between the new Lisburn/ Castlereagh council to incorporate the village of Dunmurry. Without any hint of irony, however, the SDLP are clear about the reason why they want the Minister to ignore the Boundary Commissioner’s recommendations: to keep enough nationalists in Lisburn for them to get elected.The development comes after the Minister claimed in a leaked letter that the schedule for the introduction of the new councils was under threat unless his plan to redraw the boundaries was accepted at Executive level.

Claiming the right to make this “modest adjustment,” Mr. Poots has claimed that both the Alliance Party and the SDLP joined the unionist parties in pushing him to draft these changes. Edwin Poots has claimed he is entitled to make such changes, in spite of the Boundary commissioner’s ruling following hearings in which all objections were raised and assessed, because he was privy to “strong local opposition….expressed which was not heard by the Boundary Commission.”

One need hardly wonder about whether or not that opposition emanated from ‘the community’ that is currently in need of ‘confidence.

Of course, the nature of this ‘strong local opposition’ is misleading.

Dunmurry is a predominantly nationalist village, with Sinn Fein receiving the largest share of the vote in the area.

Gauging local sentiment, in this incident, would appear to be a most subjective business. Dunmurry Community Association, as can be seen by this stinging attack on the local Sinn Fein MLA for having the temerity to criticise the siting of a loyalist bonfire on council property in the village, is strongly identified with the minority unionist population of Dunmurry village- including the Seymour Hill estate, which is in a different electoral ward set to remain within Lisburn boundaries. Suggesting that this body is speaking on behalf of the majority of Dunmurry residents when it echoes the Minister’s calls is misleading in the extreme.

There are a number of motivating factors driving the Minister at this stage.

Firstly, there is the local pressure being exerted within the unionist fraternity in Castlereagh and Lisburn. Having failed to convince the Boundary Commissioner to draw the boundaries to suit their needs, DUP councillors and MLAs must feel like they have a second chance to tailor the new electoral boundaries to match their preferences.

Secondly, there is the strong desire by unionist politicians in Lisburn to prevent Dunmurry village being dragged along with the rest of Dunmurry Cross into a Belfast where it would likely form a part of a District Electoral Area dominated by republicans (as it currently is, in any case, and the world hasn’t ended, but there you go…)

Thirdly, there is the bigger picture concern from unionist political leaders that Belfast is inexorably sliding towards a majority nationalist demographic profile (hence the strong- but ultimately failed- push to have Rathcoole brought into the city boundaries.) Cutting off even a mixed ward like Dunmurry (minus Blacks Road anyway) would at least serve the useful purpose of marginally setting back the ‘demographic decline’ in evidence.

Whatever about the pressures facing the Minister, there is obviously a bigger issue at stake here, and that is the right of a Minister- from the DUP, or anyone else- to alter the final recommendations of the non-partisan boundary commissioner because those recommendations don’t either suit his personal or party political agenda. The fact that he can shield behind the expressed support of other political parties with similarly transparent electoral ambitions should be irrelevant.

Given the history of gerrymandering within the state it is somewhat bizarre that local SDLP representatives would not pause to think about just how their actions would be interpreted by the communities they purport to represent.

Perhaps that explains the current predicament of the SDLP in a nutshell.

For Sinn Fein, it will be important to hold the line on this matter. Conceding the right of the Minister to interfere so blatantly in the already delicate process of redrawing electoral boundaries would be a serious mistake which would further undermine confidence in the party’s ability to arrest the DUP agenda.

Time will tell….