I am pleased to have an opportunity to respond to and critique the submissions to the Boundary Commission so far. The submission below should be read with and as a supplement to my previous submission to the Commission of 20 September 2011. While I stand by most of my original 20 September submission to the Commission, I have been persuaded of the merits of other proposals on the boundaries of Foyle (which has consequences for the boundaries of Glenshane and Mid Tyrone), and also of certain changes to the proposed boundaries of North Antrim, the two southern Belfast seats and Strangford. In summary, I recommend that:
- The proposed constituencies of South Antrim and Mid Antrim should be divided east-west rather than north-south, resulting in an amended South Antrim centred on Antrim district and Ballymena town, and an amended East Antrim including all of Larne and Carrickfergus districts with most of Newtownabbey.
- The proposed North Antrim constituency should not include Carnlough ward, but should include three more Coleraine wards.
- The Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency should include six more Dungannon wards rather than the six Omagh wards currently proposed.
- The proposed Mid Tyrone constituency should include the six Omagh wards currently proposed for transfer to Fermanagh and South Tyrone rather than the six Dungannon wards in the Provisional Proposals; it should include the three Strabane wards currently proposed for transfer to Foyle; it should not include six Cookstown wards which should instead be moved to Glenshane.
- The Foyle constituency should include the two Derry wards currently in East Londonderry, rather than the three Strabane wards proposed by the Commission.
- The proposed Glenshane constituency should not include any Derry wards; three of the Coleraine wards proposed for inclusion in Glenshane should instead be included in the North Antrim constituency; six of the Omagh wards proposed for inclusion in Mid Tyrone should instead be included in Glenshane.
- The ward of Loughbrickland should not be transferred from Upper Bann to South Down.
- The ward of Killinchy should be transferred to South Down from Strangford.
- The ward of Loughries should be split between Strangford and North Down.
- There should, as the Commission’s Provisional Proposals recommend, be only three Belfast constituencies.
- The Shaftesbury ward should be included in Belfast South East rather than Belfast South West.
- The Stranmillis ward should be included in Belfast South West rather than Belfast South East.
- The Upper Braniel ward should be included in Belfast South East rather than in Strangford.
- The proposed North Antrim constituency should be renamed either “Causeway Coast” or “Coleraine and North Antrim”. The proposed Mid Tyrone constituency should be renamed “Mid Ulster”. The proposed Glenshane constituency should be renamed “Sperrin” or “The Sperrins”. The proposed Belfast South West constituency should be renamed “Belfast Black Mountain”. The proposed Belfast South East constituency should also be renamed. Strangford should be renamed “Mid Down”.
However, I begin by suggesting two ways in which the Commission could make its own task easier (by liberal application of Rule 7 and by breaching ward boundaries).
1.1 Rule 7
The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales are constrained (apart from certain islands) to propose constituencies with between 72,810 and 80,473 electors. The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland has greater latitude. In my original submission I observed that the procedural threshold for invoking Rule 7, allowing the proposal of constituencies with between 70,583 and 72,810 electors, is so low that the Commission should effectively consider itself under no obligation to consider any question relating to constituency size, other than ensuring that a proposed constituency has more than 70,583 and fewer than 80,473 electors. This point was also made with varying degrees of force by the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, Omagh District Council, Mr Auld and Ms Hoben in their submissions. The conditions attached to Rule 7 are not perceptibly different from those already at play under Rule 5, and the Commission should not hesitate to exploit the room for manoeuvre that Parliament has given it.
It could be argued that, if the current round of redistribution were to shape the core of Northern Ireland's 16 constituencies for all future changes, it might be worthwhile to invest extra effort in ensuring that the variation from average size in the current Provisional Proposals is minimised, in order that future changes might also be minimised. However, this is not what the Commission's legislative instructions say, and if it were to take this approach it would be misdirecting itself.
I was also struck by a point raised by the SDLP in their submission: it is quite likely that not just the boundaries but also the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland will again be changed at the next redistribution. This had not previously occurred to me, but it is obvious that some variation over time is inevitable, and I agree with the SDLP that it may happen sooner rather than later. Given the high probability that future redistributions will be for 15, 17 or 18 seats, the best thing for the Commission to do now is to propose constituencies which respect local ties and existing boundaries to the maximum extent possible, within the relatively less restrictive mathematical limits that it has been given; this is also, conveniently, precisely what Parliament has instructed it to do.
I do not agree with the criticisms of the Commission's methodology made by Mr Hoben and Ms Hoben; they appear to have misread the intent and effect of the legislation. But the point they raise about transparency is important and could usefully be addressed in the Commission’s final report.
1.2 Ward boundaries
Before moving to specific geographical issues, there is one further procedural matter to discuss. I was struck by the reference in the submission made by the Blackstaff Community Development Association to the ward boundaries proposed by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner before the RPA process was put on ice. As I argued in my previous submission, the Commission's obligation to adhere to current ward boundaries is actually rather weak – Rule 5 states only that the Commission “may have regard” to them, and the Commission’s decision in principle not to split wards between constituencies “so far as practicable” is stronger than the letter of the legislation would justify. The Boundary Commissions for Wales and Scotland have breached the equivalent boundaries in their areas of responsibility several times (the Boundary Commission for England has, in my view incorrectly, taken a more restrictive approach).
Wards are of course a sufficiently small building block that it should not often be necessary to divide them between constituencies even while implementing the requirements of Rule 5 (as modified by Rule 7), and there are also not many other options available; but the historic townland boundaries (as in my previous proposal regarding Loughries) and the boundaries proposed after a painstaking consultation and review process by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner are two such alternative sets of building blocks. Of course the current ward-breaching boundary between West Belfast and Lagan Valley, which the Commission's proposals would (rightly) preserve, is another precedent.
2. Proposals relating to specific constituencies
2.1 South Antrim and Mid/East Antrim
Several submissions, like my own, disagreed firmly with the Commission's proposal to create a Ballymena/Carrickfergus/Larne constituency (“Mid Antrim”) and an Antrim/Newtownabbey constituency (“South Antrim”). Alternative configurations to create an Antrim/Ballymena constituency and a Carrickfergus/Larne/Newtownabbey constituency were submitted by Mr Moriarty, Mr Quincey, Mr Connolly, Mr McWhinney and Mr Auld. (The DUP expressed their deep unhappiness with the Commission's Provisional Proposals but did not make an alternative suggestion.) Having perused them all, I see no reason to change my mind either on the general principle of an east-west rather than north-south split, or on the specifics of the allocation of wards. I think my original submission maximises the preservation of local ties and minimises (though cannot completely avoid) the problem of constituency boundaries snaking through urban street blocks.
The suggested minor changes to the Commission's proposals from the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and Mr Fleming do little to fix the big problem with the Commission’s Provisional Proposals, which is the disruption of strong north-south ties for the benefit of weaker east-west ties.
I proposed in my first submission that Carnlough should be in the same constituency as the rest of Larne District, be that Mid Antrim or East Antrim. This was the entire substance of the submissions made by two elected representatives for the area, Mr McKeown and Mr McMullan, and also features in the submissions made by Mr McWhinney and Mr Moriarty. No submission strongly advocated the inclusion of Carnlough in North Antrim. No other single issue produced such a clear convergence of views among those submitting responses to the Commission's Provisional Proposals. It is to be hoped that the Commission will decide accordingly.
2.3 Fermanagh and South Tyrone / Mid Tyrone (“Mid Ulster”)
I proposed in my submission that the six Omagh wards of Dromore, Drumquin, Fintona, Newtownsaville, Sixmilecross and Trillick should not, as in the Commission’ Provisional Proposals, be moved to Fermanagh and South Tyrone from West Tyrone, but that the six Dungannon wards of Altmore, Coalisland North, Coalisland South, Coalisland West and Newmills, Donaghmore and Washing Bay should instead be transferred to Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Mid Ulster. This is also the view of Omagh District Council (the only local government body which felt strongly enough about the Commission's Provisional Proposals to make a submission), of the local branches of the SDLP, and of the Alliance Party.
It is surely clear that the division of Omagh District between constituencies is unnecessary, and the reunification of Dungannon and South Tyrone Dictrict inside a single constituency is feasible and desirable. A number of submissions (the DUP, the UUP, Mr Moriarty, Mr Auld and Mr McWhinney) propose that some wards from Omagh should still go into Fermanagh and South Tyrone and/or that some wards from Dungannon should not, but this fails to solve the central problem of the Commission's Provisional Proposals, and in a couple of cases is driven by an over-restrictive and inaccurate interpretation of the Commission's mathematical instructions.
2.4 The Glenshane / Mid Tyrone (“Mid Ulster”) boundary: Lissan and Coagh/Ardboe
The DUP propose that Coagh and Ardboe should be included in Glenshane, rather than in Mid Tyrone. Mr Moriarty proposes that only Coagh should be so included. Both proposals are bad for the urban core of Cookstown, which would be divided from its hinterland to the east.
My counter-proposal, that instead Lissan should be moved from Glenshane to Mid Ulster, in order not to separate Cookstown from its hinterland, finds support from Mr Murphy who is rather eerily on the same wavelength as me on this issue.
While I maintain that Lissan (and Coagh) should be in the same constituency as the five urban Cookstown wards, I have revisited this part of my proposals rather extensively, as explained in the next section.
2.5 Foyle / Glenshane / Mid Tyrone (“Mid Ulster”)
The DUP, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and Mr Auld all argue vigorously that Foyle should regain Claudy and Banagher, the two Derry wards which it lost at the last revision, rather than annexing the three Strabane wards proposed by the Commission. Although I supported the Commission's Provisional Proposals here on first glance, I have been convinced by the counter-arguments. Claudy and Banagher are much more obviously linked to Derry than to Limavady, and are a more obvious fit for Foyle than are the fringes of Strabane. This would incidentally restore the boundaries of Foyle to those obtaining from 1995 to 2007.
If Foyle includes Claudy and Banagher, rather than the three Strabane wards of Slievekirk, Dunnamanagh and Artigarvan, it will have 72,573 electors, which is a hair under the 72,810 limit for the rest of the UK, but surely a clear case for the application of Rule 7, even for those who disagree with my liberal interpretation of it. No further wards need be included in Foyle.
But this would cause a serious problem with Glenshane, which would now lack the electorate which would have been supplied by the two Derry wards, and also with Mid Tyrone which would now have too many electors. The only block that can be moved with any (admittedly minuscule) degree of convenience between the two is the entire urban core of Cookstown - the five wards of Oldtown, Newbuildings, Tullagh, Gortalowry and Killymoon - and the neighbouring ward of Coagh, which I therefore recommend should be included in the Glenshane constituency rather than the Mid Tyrone constituency. I therefore also recommend, contra my previous submission but in line with the Commission’s Provisional Proposals, that the Lissan ward be part of the Glenshane constituency rather than Mid Tyrone.
The Mid Tyrone constituency would thus include the entirety of Strabane and Omagh districts, and the Cookstown wards of Dunnamore, Pomeroy, Oaklands, Sandholes, Stewartstown, Ardboe and Killycolpy; these last seven wards form a rather awkward salient from the west of County Tyrone to Lough Neagh, but there is no obvious alternative. I calculate the electorate of that seat at 73,010, which is within the required limits.
2.6 Glenshane / North Antrim
The boundaries proposed above would produce a Glenshane seat consisting of the whole of Limavady and Magherafelt districts, the Cookstown wards of Moneymore, The Loop, Lissan, Coagh, Oldtown, Newbuildings, Tullagh, Gortalowry and Killymoon, and the Coleraine wards of Agivey, Kilrea, Castlerock, Macosquin, Garvagh and Ringsend. While this would be within the acceptable limits at 77,033 electors, it would be preferable to reunite Coleraine with its hinterland by including the Coleraine wards of Macosquin, Agivey and Castlerock, which have a combined electorate of 5,551, in the proposed North Antrim constituency. This would bring Glenshane down to 71,482, which is within the Rule 7 limit; if either Agivey or Castlerock were retained in Glenshane, Rule 7 would not need to be invoked, but it seems clear that this is a good case for its use.
North Antrim, which as argued previously should lose the Carnlough ward, would then go up to 79,757 electors if the 5,551 from the three Coleraine wards are included; this is within the mathematical limit set by legislation.
2.7 Upper Bann / South Down / Strangford
I note that several submissions agreed with my proposal that Loughbrickland should be retained in Upper Bann rather than transferred to South Down.
I do not agree with the proposal made by the Democratic Unionist Party and others that Crossgar should be transferred to Strangford; I stand by my original proposal that Killyleagh, which should never have been separated from Downpatrick, should be restored to the South Down constituency.
2.8 Strangford / North Down
I stand by my original proposal that the Loughries ward should be divided between the Strangford and North Down constituencies, to better reflect the communication networks around Newtownards on the one hand and between Bangor and the Ards Peninsula on the other. By inference from the census returns I realise that I may have underestimated the number of voters in the eastern part of Loughries ward - it may be as many as 400 rather than the 200 I first thought - but this does not change the merits of the argument.
I absorbed with great interest and some sympathy the numerous submissions from groups and individuals in South Belfast protesting the Commission's proposed abolition of the seat. I grew up there myself and am well aware of its strong local identity. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a plausible alternative. The SDLP's proposal demonstrated the difficulty of finding such an alternative, by sketching out a South Belfast seat whose eastern extremity is almost at Comber, whose southern extremity is just north of Saintfield and whose southwestern boundary would dance through the streets of Lisburn. If the SDLP's proposals, or any better variation of them, were adopted, the South Belfast identity would be diluted anyway beyond recognition. It is better to accept that there are no longer sufficient numbers to preserve the constituency. It is worth noting that the legislative instruction to the Commission to take into account the potential inconvenience caused by its proposed changes explicitly (and rather cryptically) does not apply to this Review.
However, I am convinced by the arguments from Sinn Féin, An Droichead, Mr Moriarty and Mr McWhinney that the Shaftesbury ward should be part of the new South East Belfast and the Stranmillis ward part of the new South West Belfast rather than vice versa. Local ties in such a densely populated urban environment will end up being brutally violated in this process anyway, but the proposed swap would reduce (though certainly not remove) the consequent disruption. I do not go as far as the DUP's proposal to draw the boundary along the Lagan.
I also find compelling the arguments from Mr Moriarty, Mr McWhinney and the DUP that Upper Braniel should be included in South East Belfast, though it also seems to me that there may be a case for splitting the ward along the line of the Middle Braniel Road (and the Upper Braniel Road between the Middle Braniel Road and its junction with the Ballygowan Road at the ward boundary), the northern part joining Belfast South West and the southern part Strangford, though the number of electors in the southern part must be very small.
I am not as convinced by Mr McWhinney's suggestion that this constituency should also include Cairnshill and Knockbracken, and still less by the DUP's proposal to include Minnowburn and Beechhill, which are actually more distant from Belfast than may appear on the map. The boundaries between the Belfast seats, however many there may be, and the neighbouring constituencies will always be unsatisfactory anyway, given the pattern of settlement, and the knock-on effects of any serious expansion of the Belfast seats for Strangford and other constituencies become increasingly difficult to resolve.
I do not support any of the alternative proposals for the boundary between North Belfast and the Antrim seats variously submitted by the SDLP, Croí Éanna and Mr Auld. None of them can avoid the problem of boundaries looping through the streets of Newtownabbey, and the Commission's original proposals, modified by my suggested configuration of the Antrim seats, seem to me preferable in terms of keeping decent internal communication in North Belfast.
I therefore propose that South West Belfast, with Stranmillis rather than Shaftesbury, would have 74,408 electors; South East Belfast, with Shaftesbury and Upper Braniel but not Stranmillis, would have 74,394 electors; and Strangford, without Upper Braniel at one end and without Killyleagh at the other, would have 71,482 electors, possibly closer to 71,000 if my proposal to divide Loughries is adopted. These boundaries for Strangford would mean invoking Rule 7, but as I have repeatedly argued, the Commission should be ready to do so.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the question of constituency names is a recurrent theme among the submissions to the Boundary Commission. Given my changed views on the Mid Tyrone and Glenshane constituencies, I no longer feel as strongly as I did that Mid Tyrone should be redesignated as “Mid Ulster”. But I find Mr Auld's suggestion that the proposed Glenshane should instead be designated “Sperrin” (or, I might suggest, “The Sperrins”) very attractive; and his proposal that Strangford should be renamed “Mid Down” should have been adopted when that constituency was first created in 1983.
While the submissions from aggrieved residents of South Belfast have understandably concentrated on their own loss of a parliamentary identity under the Commission's Provisional Proposals, it should be noted also that the impact on West Belfast is not insignificant; the Shankill Road, traditionally part of West Belfast, is now completely removed from it. The proposed Belfast South West should be given a more geographically neutral name: “Belfast Black Mountain” is appropriate, given that every house in the area has a good view of that geographical feature. A similar name should be identified for Belfast South East.
As noted in my original submission, the name North Antrim is simply not an accurate description of the Commission's proposed constituency. “Coleraine and North Antrim”, or “Causeway Coast”, are acceptable alternatives.
It is clear that the dozens of responses received to the Provisional Proposals indicate a certain level of engagement in the Commission's activities. The Commission has demonstrated a commitment to transparency, including in my own personal interactions with its staff, which is commendable. However, the Boundary Commission for Scotland was able to go a step further by including Excel spreadsheets and a mapping application on its website; perhaps this will be possible also next time in Northern Ireland (especially as the next redistribution will come all too soon).
The constraints imposed on the Commission by Parliament are certain to lead to dissatisfaction; the tight mathematical limits set on the Commission's work, and the fact that the Commission is cutting the number of territorial parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1922, put it in a more invidious situation than was the case in 1949, 1970, 1983, 1995 or 2007. While it may not be regular practice for the Commission to comment on its own terms of reference, the circumstances are so unusual that it would be appropriate for the Commission’s final report to find some expression of sympathy for those whose efforts to serve their communities are inevitably going to be set back by the new scheme of things, no matter how well designed it may be.
5 February 2012