The 16 seats to come

Back in 2011-12, we had prolonged discussions about the knock-on effects for Northern Ireland of the previous government’s proposals to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons down to 600, which in Northern Ireland’s case would have meant a decrease from 18 MPs to 16. That didn’t happen in the end, as the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support for the proposed changes, but the legislation remains on the statute book, and unless it is changed (and signals are that it won’t be) the process will kick off again shortly, with new constituencies being designed to be as equal in size as possible, based on the electoral roll as of 1 December 2015.

Going from the voter statistics at the recent election, it seems very likely that the proposal for Northern Ireland will again be a cut from 18 seats to 16. The total UK electorate on 7 May was 46,420,413; take off the Isle of Wight and Scottish islands and you have 46,255,314; divide by 596 (the Isle of Wight will have two seats, as will the Scottish islands) and you get 77,610 as the ideal size of UK constituency electorate; divide that into Northern Ireland’s electorate of 1,236,683 and you get 15.96, more or less bang on 16 seats. It is unlikely that there will be sufficient relative movement of voters between May and December to change that.

The aborted process of 2011-13 produced a set of recommendations for 16 seats which had been tested at public consultation, and by the Boundary Commission’s own internal deliberations, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that that is where the Commission will start from this time. Some things remain the same. As in 2011-13, Belfast is no longer populous enough to justify four Westminster seats. Even the new expanded city council will need another 19,000 voters to be brought in from somewhere to make up the numbers for three seats – presumably from Newtownabbey and Castlereagh.

Also as in 2011-13, the three seats of Newry and Armagh, Upper Bann and South Down are already close to the electoral quota, and will need only minimal tinkering if any. That basically means that one seat will be lost in the capital, with South Belfast effectively partitioned between its neighbours, and the other cut will come from the underpopulated Tyrone seats.Two things have changed in the interim which will require some modification to the 2013 map.

First of all, there has been some differential population growth, with Dungannon in particular rather a boom town. For some reason, the Electoral Office has only published statistics for the old ward boundaries, so I’m not as well-informed on the overall detail as I’d like to be. But this we can still add together the number of voters in each seat of the 2013 map to see if it still works. And by and large it does; the one exception is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which is at 81,877 voters on 1 July 2015 figures, just outside the 5% leeway allowed from the national quota of 77,610. If we were still using the old wards, that would be easily fixed by moving Altmore or Washing Bay into the new Mid Tyrone constituency. The new map is a bit more awkward, but only a bit.

Second, the building blocks have changed. The last few constituency revisions used the 582 wards drawn up in the 1990s for the old 26 district councils. We will now be using the 462 wards used to elect the 11 new councils last year. There will therefore be a certain loss of granularity – the wards start at around 2,000 voters each, and in Belfast they are all between 3,000 and 4,000, which means that there will be awkward decisions to make as the map is put together.

Translating the boundaries proposed in 2013 onto the new ward map is straightforward but tedious. By new district, district electoral area (DEA), and ward, they work out roughly as follows, starting with Belfast and then going roughly clockwise around Lough Neagh (likely new seats in bold and underlined, new district councils just underlined):

North Belfast


  • Castle and Oldpark DEAs,
  • most of Court DEA (Ballygomartin, Forth River, Shankill and Woodvale wards)
Antrim and Newtownabbey
  • most of Macedon DEA (Carnmoney Hill, O’Neill, Rathcoole, Valley and Whitehouse wards, half of Abbey ward),
  • most of Glengormley Urban DEA (Ballyhenry, Carnmoney, Collinbridge, Glebe, Glengormley and Hightown wards)
South West Belfast


  • Black Mountain and Collin DEAs
  • part of Court DEA (Clonard and Falls wards)
  • most of Balmoral DEA (Finaghy, Malone, Musgrave and Upper Malone wards)
  • part of Botanic DEA (Blackstaff and Windsor wards)
South East Belfast:


  • Lisnasharragh, Ormiston and Titanic DEAs
  • most of Botanic DEA (Central, Ormeau and Stranmillis wards)
  • part of Balmoral DEA (Belvoir ward) [a bit of a stretch on the map, but Belvoir looks east rather than west]
Lisburn and Castlereagh
  • part of Castlereagh South DEA (Galwally and Newtownbreda wards)
North Down

North Down and Ards

  • Ards Peninsula, Bangor East and Donaghadee, Bangor Central, Bangor West and Holywood and Clandeboye DEAs

North Down and Ards

  • Newtownards and Comber DEAs
Lisburn and Castlereagh
  • Castlereagh East DEA
  • most of Castlereagh South DEA (Beechill, Cairnshill, Carryduff East, Carryduff West, and Knockbracken wards)
Newry, Mourne and Down
  • most of Rowallane DEA (Ballynahinch, Derryboy, Kilmore and Saintfield wards)
Lagan Valley

Lisburn and Castlereagh

  • Killultagh, Lisburn South, Lisburn North, Downshire West and Downshire East DEAs
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
  • most of Lagan River DEA (Dromore, Gransha and Quilly wards)
South Down

Newry, Mourne and Down

  • Downpatrick, Slieve Croob, The Mournes and Crotlieve DEAs
  • part of Rowallane DEA (Crossgar and Killyleagh ward)
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
  • part of Banbridge DEA (Loughbrickland and Rathfriland wards)
Newry and Armagh

Newry, Mourne and Down

  • Newry and Slieve Gullion DEAs
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
  • Armagh DEA
  • most of Cusher DEA (Hamiltonsbawn, Markethill, Richhill and Seagahan wards)
  • part of Portadown DEA (Loughgall ward)
Upper Bann

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon

  • Craigavon and Lurgan DEAs
  • most of Portadown DEA (Ballybay, Corcrain, Killycomain, Mahon and The Birches wards)
  • most of Banbridge DEA (Banbridge East, Banbridge North, Banbridge South, Banbridge West and Gilford wards)
  • part of Lagan River DEA (Donaghcloney and Waringstown wards)
  • part of Cusher DEA (Tandragee ward)
Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Fermanagh and Omagh

  • Erne West, Erne North, Erne West and Enniskillen DEAs
Mid Ulster
  • Dungannon and Clogher Valley DEAs
  • most of Torrent DEA (Coalisland North, Coalisland South, Donaghmore and Washing Bay wards)
Mid Tyrone

Fermanagh and Omagh

  • West Tyrone, Omagh and Mid Tyrone DEAs
Mid Ulster
  • Cookstown DEA
  • part of Torrent DEA (Ardboe and Stewartstown wards)
Derry and Strabane
  • Derg DEA
  • most of Sperrin DEA (Ballycolman, Glenelly Valley, Strabane North and Strabane West wards)

Mid Ulster

  • Carntogher, Moyola and Magherafelt DEAs
Derry and Strabane
  • part of Faughan DEA (Claudy ward)
  • part of Sperrin DEA (Park ward)
Causeway Coast and Glens
  • Bann, Benbradagh and Limavady DEAs

Derry and Strabane

  • Ballyarnett, Foyleside, The Moor and Waterside DEAs
  • most of Faughan DEA (Eglinton, Enagh, New Buildings and Slievekirk wards)
  • part of Sperrin DEA (Artigarvan and Dunnamanagh wards)
Causeway and North Antrim

Causeway Coast and Glens

  • The Glens, Causeway, Ballymoney and Coleraine DEAs
Mid and East Antrim
  • half of Braid DEA (Broughshane, Glenravel and Kirkinriola wards, and half of Slemish ward)
  • half of Bannside DEA (Cullybackey, Maine and Portglenone wards)
East Antrim

Mid and East Antrim

  • Knockagh, Carrick Castle, Larne Lough and Coast Road DEAs
  • part of Braid DEA (half of Slemish ward)
Antrim and Newtownabbey
  • Three Mile Water DEA
  • most of Ballyclare DEA (Ballyclare East, Ballyclare West and Ballyrobert wards)
  • part of Glengormley Urban DEA (Burnthill ward)
  • part of Macedon DEA (half of Abbey ward)
South Antrim

Mid and East Antrim

  • Ballymena DEA
  • half of Bannside DEA (Ahoghill, Galgorm and Grange wards)
  • part of Braid DEA (Ballee and Harryville, Glenwhirry and Kells wards)
Antrim and Newtownabbey
  • Dunsilly, Antrim and Airport DEAs
  • part of Ballyclare DEA (Ballyrobert and Doagh wards)
Areas where I can see some need for finessing of the previous proposals are the northern and south-eastern fringes of the Belfast seats, and the sparsely populated core of County Tyrone. The North Belfast boundary will snake awkwardly through the streets of Newtownabbey, and the border between South East Belfast and South West Belfast will weave along the Malone Road (driven by the remorseless maths of the ward electorates and boundaries). As noted above, the previous Fermanagh and South Tyrone proposal is already overpopulated, and trimming it will have knock-on effects for Mid Tyrone, Glenshane and Foyle. The Commission may also try again to split the central Antrim seats north/south rather than east/west.

In party political terms, the most significant changes since I crunched the numbers on the Commission’s previous provisional (rather than revised) proposals are that the UUP and Alliance have nudged up their vote, and the Nationalist vote overall has decreased. Going through the parties in reverse order of their number of Westminster MPs:

  • Alliance would have a decent chance of taking the new South East Belfast seat, especially against a split Unionist vote; it does the party’s prospects no harm to exchange Dundonald for leafy suburbanites who are used to voting for moderate candidates.
  • Lady Hermon’s vote in North Down is strong enough that even if the Ards Peninsula’s voters were to support another candidate (which they won’t) she will still be safe for as long as she wants to remain.
  • The UUP’s two seats will be made more difficult to defend. I expect that Fermanagh and South Tyrone will be expanded to include Coalisland, though the other possibility is to add the southern fringes of the former Omagh district; either way it’s not very helpful for Tom Elliott. South Antrim likewise is surrounded by territory where the UUP was once strong but is now weaker than the DUP, enough to make Danny Kinahan’s life very interesting.
  • For the SDLP, South Down remains much the same and Foyle becomes a little tighter, though I think not yet in the danger zone. South Belfast, on the other hand, is unsalvageable in my view. In the abortive last boundary review the SDLP tried and failed to propose credible boundaries that might preserve their leader’s seat, which he held in the May 2015 general election with the lowest vote share ever recorded for a winning candidate at Westminster.
  • As noted above, SF’s chance of regaining Fermanagh and South Tyrone is increased by any plausible addition of new territory; their margin in South West Belfast is not as stratospheric as in the current West Belfast, but remains secure; and the merging of two current seats in Tyrone is compensated by the new seat of Glenshane, where I put them well in front, and probably ahead of a theoretical single Unionist candidate as well.
  • Finally, a reduction in seats changes normally should hit the largest party worst, but it’s not clear that it will have this effect on the DUP. They certainly lose East Londonderry, but have a good shot at retaking South Antrim, and decent odds of retaining South East Belfast; and another DUP gain can be anticipated if Lady Hermon should ever quit the scene.
For the moment, this is a summer distraction. But given that the Boundary Commission has a good set of maps sitting on the shelf, it could get real quite quickly next year.

Husband, father of three, Irish, European, UK, Belgian citizen, liberal, political analyst, science fiction fan, psephologist, lapsed medievalist, aspiring polyglot.

  • Paddy Reilly

    I seem to recall I said at the time that the effect of the new constituencies, which merged North Down and Strangford, East and South Bellfast, was to create a situation where there were enough Nationalist votes to elect a MLA in every single constituency, leading to a possible change in the balance of power at Stormont.

  • I would actually be against Castlereagh East DEA going to Strangford because, well, it’s not bloody Strangford. It’s East Belfast and the population of Dundonald have always felt part of East.

  • Chingford Man

    I think the proposed reduction in the Commons is cynical. Reducing the numbers simply makes the Commons easier for a Prime Minister to control. Cameron has already allowed ministers outside the Cabinet to have Parliamentary Private Secretaries, a way of increasing the payroll vote in advance of a difficult Parliament.

    Am I right in saying that there needs to be a fresh vote in the Commons for the proposal to reduce the seats from 650 to 600 and that this is not going to be taken until 2017?

    By 2017, the Tory majority of 12 will surely be reduced at least to 10 or 8, and all the opposition parties, including the unionists who will be of increasing strategic significance with every decrease in the Tory majority, will be strongly opposed to a smaller Commons.

    The move to cut the seats in the last Parliament was always about overcoming the bias in the electoral system in favour of Labour. That will not be such a driving force now.

    There was also some discontent within Tory ranks at the results of the Boundary Commission’s work in the last Parliament and at least as much now, I suspect. If you think that your seat might disappear from under you, and you would have to trust the party machine to find you somewhere else, would you want that party machine to have such a hold over you? The recent vote on foxhunting shows the weakness of this government when faced with a backbench Tory rebellion.

    I’m not sure the Tories have the numbers to get any measure passed and, given the problems they will be facing over the next few years and the need to keep unionists sweet in the last half of this Parliament, they may prefer the easy option of sticking with 650.

  • mjh

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that for Stormont elections any change would not take effect until the 2020 elections. By which time the number of seats per constituency is due to drop to 5.

  • Robin Keogh

    Breaking up Belfast South between East and West will do no harm. It might help to break the politcal polarisation that currently exists. We will no longer have any constituencies there that are 90% Nationalist or Unionist meaning all areas will have representation at assembly level from both sides of the community.

  • Robin Keogh

    Excellent point, if there needs to be another vote on it, it is unlikely to pass.

  • Mister_Joe

    Are you saying that there are going to be lots of gerrymandered salamander wards?

  • Chingford Man

    It’s even more bizarre that Dundonald is in the same local authority as Dromara and Moira.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Not sure about that – the Nationalist votes in the Ards Peninsula couldn’t elect a Nationalist MLA even after favourable boundary changes last time!

    And anyway, why would a Nationalist in every constituency lead to a change in the balance of power in Stormont?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Well, of course, in the old County Down that was already the case…

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Indeed, good point.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Thank you for this excellent and informed summary Nicholas.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I think there is cynicism enough to go round here. The original proposal to reduce to 600 evenly drawn seats was of course aimed at removing Labour’s in-built advantage, and as you rightly point out the voters have now done most of that job.

    But I suspect that any revision now will still see the Tories as net winners overall, because if you are the largest party in an FPTP system, other things being equal you will get a larger share of the seats if there are fewer seats. The article I linked to suggests that the relatively small number of Tory losers can be easily enough bought off.

    You can then accuse the opposition of voting to preserve existing inequality where there are a bunch of Welsh and Scottish seats with less than 50,000 voters, and a bunch of English urban seats, especially in London, with over 80,000. In the current climate, it would be a bold argument to say that the Welsh and Scots deserve over-representation at Westminster.

    I agree entirely that the Tory majority is likely to have disappeared by the time we get to voting on this, but I do wonder if the opposition parties will feel in a position to oppose it. The Scottish Nationalists in particular will come out rather well on current showing.

  • That’s very true, the council boundary is huge and wholly artificial. No regard to townlands or cultural ties.

  • David Crookes

    Yes, thanks indeed, Nicholas.

  • mjh

    Yes. You have done us poor anoraks an enormous favour.

  • AndyB

    Way back, Dundonald from the hospital onwards was in North Down constituency, and most of the Ards Peninsula was in Strangford. There may yet be mileage in that – but there’s no chance of Dundonald getting to vote in East Belfast, because even stretching the four constituencies out to the edge of the metropolitan area (ie taking over urban Newtownabbey and Castlereagh) isn’t going to achieve four quotas.

  • There doesn’t need to be any other vote on it. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which reduces the number of seats, remains in force. Its implementation was simply postponed until 2017. For the reduction *not* to happen, there would need to be a fresh vote keeping parliament at the current number of seats. It would need some Conservative rebels to side with all the opposition parties and that’s very difficult to achieve.

  • Colin Lamont

    One thing’s for sure, none of our local parties will be voting for this legislation.
    DUP seats in East Belfast and East Londonderry wiped out, any chance of winning South Belfast gone, the UUP’s west of the Bann presence removed and the destruction of Alastair Mcdonnell ‘s constituency, not to mention unfavourable changes to the remaining SDLP MP seats.
    Sinn Fein gain SW Belfast, Fermanagh and Glenshane, not to mention improved chances of gains in Foyle and South Down. How ironic that the ‘party of the Union’ will facilitate an abstentionist party in gaining up to half our parliamentary seats.

  • John Gorman

    Commented a while back on an Irish news article by Brian Feeney. He felt the DUP were the party going to take the hit but I disagreed and felt that the UUP will be the big losers.

    Interesting recent article in the spectator believes that the number of Tories affected by the reduction in the number of seats from 650 to 600 is so small that they can either be accommodated with another seat where the sitting MP is likely to retire at the next election, or moved into the House of Lords. That should help them push through these changes and will make any recovery very difficult for Labour over the next few elections

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Sure, but the boundary changes themselves need an Order in Council, do they not? And that would need approval from both Houses. So it’s not a completely empty threat. But my gut feeling agrees with yours – the House of Commons is unlikely to reject the ourcome of a second public consultation on effectively the same set of proposals inside five years, which evens out some pretty glaring disparities in the current setup.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Any time, chaps!

  • Nicholas Whyte

    No. The Tyrone seats will look a bit odd, because of the geography of the wards, but that’s about it.

  • Ian James Parsley

    That’s correct.

    Indeed, what happened last time was the (then decisive) LibDems indicated they would oppose the Order creating the new boundaries, so the process was stopped.

    It is possible that, by the time of the vote, the Conservatives will have a bare if any majority. Bear in mind a few back benchers may also be seeing the effective removal of their own constituency, and there’s many a slip.

    Out of interest, the legislation specifies NI at 16 seats – there is no longer any leeway.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Not quite.

    When the Boundary Commissions report, Parliament votes on it. It could vote to reject the boundaries as recommended, thus maintaining the status quo.

    As I noted above, it only takes a few back benchers losing their constituencies to rebel and it’s too close to call.

  • Ian James Parsley

    There is no reason to assume, however, that any attention will be paid to the last recommendations at all.

    Indeed, I wouldn’t.

    This link has 16 constituencies all well within 3% of the average (as per current roll admittedly), and in fact keeps DEAs largely intact while respecting even traditional county boundaries as far as reasonably possible. I would propose it as a far better starting point:

  • That’s true, but it’s almost unheard of for parliament to reject the report of an independent boundary commission, the only time that happened was the late 60s when the Labour government postponed the Second periodic report (the Conservatives passed it anyway for the 1974 election.) Since the changes greatly favour the Conservatives, it’s in their interest to pass it.

  • I think there’s an outside chance that the legislation could be amended to keep the House of Commons at 650 seats. In the end, it’s the stricter electoral quota and reduced time between reviews, not the reduction in seats, that will help the Conservatives versus Labour. Keeping it at its current number is less likely to have smaller opposition parties (who would be disadvantaged by such a reduction) voting against and would keep backbenchers happy.

  • Dundonald seems to get shunted around at each review. It was in East Belfast until 1983, North Down 1983-1997, Strangford 1997-2010 and East Belfast again since then. I think East Belfast is its most logical home, but it’s a makeweight for other constituencies. Ards Peninsula has always been in Strangford.

  • Incidentally, this link is good for anoraks who want to have a go at playing commissioner themselves. The downside is that it’s based on earlier electoral figures (maybe 2013), not the more recent ones.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Are you sure about that last point, Ian? As I read the legislation it specifies the Sainte-Laguë method for allocating seats between the four parts of the UK.

  • Gingray

    Great summary Nick – it should be interesting to see how the recent election impacts on the projections at assembly and westminster, particularly when they are reduced to 5 per seat.

  • Ian James Parsley

    My phrasing was slightly out – I meant that, unlike the last revision when the commission could go anywhere from 16-18, the legislation now has the effect of specifying 16 (for the forthcoming revision; and frankly for the foreseeable future).

  • I can see pretty obvious problems with that one. A constituency stretching from Bellevue to Belvoir? Not a reasonable suggestion. Portadown and Ballymena are split between different constituencies and a lot of the others separate rural hinterland from the towns they’re linked to. That’s the case with Limavady, Ballymena, Dungannon, Omagh and Coleraine, with Antrim and Strabane also having that issue to a lesser degree. The rules are not only numerical ones, they say that local ties must be respected and the above does not. When previous commissions suggested things like that, they were quickly shot down in flames at local enquiries and these proposals would be too.

    A lot of the names are a bit dubious as well, Belfast lagan contains very little of the Lagan, Belvoir and Bellevue are by no stretch of the imagination in “central Belfast” and it’s not standard practice by the commission to name rural constituencies after one of their towns, it’s highly doubtful, for example, that residents of Newcastle regard themselves as being part of Newry.

  • mjh

    Any projection about elections 5 or 6 years in the future must come wreathed in health warnings. Not least that even if these do turn out to be the basis used for the final boundaries there may well be tweeks to half a dozen constituencies at the final cut.

    Accumulating the Local Government results from last year suggests three tentative observations on the party political impact:

    1) The two largest parties are likely to be the winners at Westminster. On these boundaries the council votes would most likely have given 9 DUP, 6 SF, 1 SDLP.

    2) Taken with the change to 5 MLA’s per constituency the effect on the unionist/nationalist balance at Stormont would be negligible. Most likely result using these votes would be unionist parties 43 seats (53.8% of seats compared to 51.9% at the moment); nationalist parties 30 seats (37.5% compared to 39.8% currently); and centre parties 7 seats (8.8% versus today’s 8.3%). These minimal changes would appear to be driven by the reduced share of the nationalist vote in 2014 and the improved unionist share, rather than by the new boundaries or seat reduction.

    3) However some smaller parties might benefit at the Stormont level with the UUP, TUV and SDLP improving their share within their respective blocks. Most likely results would be DUP 25, UUP 14 and TUV 4. SF 19 and SDLP 11. Alliance 6 and Green 1.

    I would again like to stress that that is not a prediction, merely rearranging the council votes into these boundaries.

  • Gingray

    Indeed, its a pretty radical but non viable proposal