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

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

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:

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
Strangford

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)
Glenshane

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
Foyle

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.