Boundary Commission stresses impartiality over proposed NI electoral map

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Major changes to proposed electoral constituencies in Northern Ireland were made impartially and without political interference, the Boundary Commission has insisted.

Commissioners stressed their impartiality after confirming significant alterations to their original blueprint for redrawing the region’s constituency map.

The revised proposals, which ditch a plan to cut the number of seats in Belfast from four to three, entered the public domain two weeks ago when the Press Association obtained a copy.

That disclosure prompted an angry reaction from Sinn Fein, with the republican party alleging the boundary changes favoured the Democratic Unionists and represented a Government attempt to curry favour with its confidence and supply partners at Westminster.

Confirming the changes reported by PA earlier this month, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, which is an independent body, moved to reject any suggestion of partiality.

“The structure of the Commission and its remit is strictly prescribed by statute,” said a spokesman.

“This provides safeguards to ensure that the process of redistricting is protected from political influence or interference.”

Northern Ireland is losing one constituency as part of wider government plans to reduce the number of seats in the UK from 650 to 600. How the reduction from 18 to 17 seats is achieved has become the source of political controversy.

The commission’s first proposals, published in 2016, were heavily criticised by the Government’s kingmakers, the DUP, who claimed it could undermine the political stability of the region.

Analysts suggested the first version could see Sinn Fein overtake the DUP as the holder of the largest number of Westminster seats.

The revised proposals, officially published on Tuesday, see Belfast retain its four seats.

A series of new constituencies proposed in the first draft – North Tyrone; Glenshane; Dalriada; West Antrim; Upper Bann and Blackwater; and West Down – have also been scrapped.

Instead the Boundary Commission NI is now suggesting:

–   A Causeway constituency on the north coast, merging part of East Londonderry with part of North Antrim and a small section of East Antrim.

–  The remainder of North Antrim is renamed Mid Antrim and takes in parts of East Antrim and South Antrim.

–  South Antrim, in turn, takes part of a defunct Lagan Valley. Another portion of Lagan Valley merges with a section of Strangford, and a small part of South Down, to become Mid Down.

–  South Belfast is also expanded to take in parts of Lagan Valley and Strangford. Like Lagan Valley, the Strangford name is gone. The remaining chunk of the constituency is absorbed into a significantly larger North Down.

–  The remaining parts of East Londonderry are absorbed by enlarged West Tyrone and Mid Ulster constituencies.

–  Unlike the expansion proposed under the first draft, Fermanagh and South Tyrone remains largely unchanged.

New electoral boundaries overlaid on top of an existing constituency map for Northern Ireland
New electoral boundaries overlaid on top of an existing constituency map for Northern Ireland (PA/Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland).

However, in Northern Ireland commissioners have the discretion to propose boundaries limits with slightly fewer or slightly more voters, if there is a compelling reason for doing so.

Under the revised proposals, five constituencies have fewer than 71,031 voters, West Tyrone, Upper Bann, Belfast East, Belfast South and Mid Antrim.

The Commission said the changes were a response to the views forwarded during an “open and transparent” consultation process when the first draft was published.

They said as well as disquiet around the Belfast proposals, concerns were also raised that the initial plan envisaged overly radical changes to existing boundaries; cut major towns off from their natural hinterlands; and created unnecessary division in the Glengormley/Newtownabbey area of north greater Belfast.

Commissioners believe the new map addresses many of those concerns.

They highlight that major changes were also made to the first blueprints proposed for England and Scotland.

Each regional commission is chaired by a High Court judge, with the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow acting as chair for the all the UK commissions.

The Commission spokesman added: “Members of the Boundary Commissioner are appointed through open competition and must not have engaged in political activity.

“Accordingly, the work of the Commission is carried out separately from politics and is their strictly objective assessment of evidence in accordance with the applicable statutory rules. The consultation process engaged by the Commission is an open and transparent process which encourages participation from all.”

The revised proposals for Northern Ireland have been published amid ongoing speculation that the wider UK 2018 boundary review could be scrapped.

Labour has opposed the plan, with the party standing to lose seats under new boundaries, and some Tory backbenchers are also unhappy with the proposal to cut the number of MPs to 600.

The Commission is running another public consultation exercise for its latest proposals for Northern Ireland over the next eight weeks.

It will then forward a final draft to the Northern Ireland Secretary in September. After which it will be merged with the plans for all the other UK regions and laid before Parliament for MPs to either approve or reject.

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