1. Thank you for your placing the results of your first round of consultation online for comment. I must say that reading through them has been an educational process and I have changed my mind on a couple of key issues as a result. Specifically, I am no longer convinced that removing a seat from Belfast is inevitable (I never felt that it was desirable).
2. Before I get into the detail, however, I must admit that my own zeal for engagement with this phase of your review has been somewhat diminished by the outcome of the June 2017 Westminster election. Simply put, I do not believe that there will be a parliamentary majority for your proposed changes (and those of your fellow Commissioners in England, Scotland and Wales) when push comes to shove. It is probable that all of the opposition parties will oppose changes which generally benefit the Conservative Party, and the DUP’s emphatic rejection of the abolition of Northern Ireland’s 18th seat surely commits them to vote against as well. So I fear that your excellent work will (for a second consecutive cycle) not produce a legislative result.
3. Nonetheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see how boundaries might and could be changed. By my calculation it is likely that even if it is decided that the next Review should be for a 650-seat House of Commons, Northern Ireland would still be entitled to only 17 seats on a pure electoral headcount (going by the figures from the June 2017 election), so your work this time will therefore be a dry run for the real thing in a few years’ time.
Preserving Four Seats in Belfast
4. As stated above, my views have been changed on the number of seats that should be allocated to the Belfast urban area. There are three main reasons for this:
5. First, I considered the pretty strict wording of the Commission’s mandate. Rule 5 (1) gives the following factors that the Boundary Commission “may” take into account (in fact this is the only guidance other than mathematics provided in the legislation, so that “may” is a bit more forceful than mere semantics would suggest):
- special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency;
- local government boundaries as they exist on the most recent ordinary council-election day before the review date;
- boundaries of existing constituencies;
- any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies;
- the inconveniences attendant on such changes.
6. It is therefore clear that the Commission should in general prioritise the grouping of wards already sharing a parliamentary constituency over the grouping of wards which are co-located in one of the (relatively new) local government districts. When the Commission decided (4.4 of its Provisional report) that the “Belfast constituencies should, taken together and as far as possible, match the borders of Belfast City Council”, it therefore misdirected itself.
7. This point applies also to the awful Upper Bann and Blackwater proposal, which is mistakenly based on the geographical clustering of wards without regard to existing constituency links.
8. Second, though perhaps more important, it is striking that local sentiment runs strongly in favour of keeping four seats in Belfast. Claire Hanna MLA, Paul Andrews, Jason Cantellaven, Albert Cooke and Dale Pankhurst all make this point in general terms. Michael and Shauna Dunlop object to the Four Winds (less than 4 miles from the city centre) being taken out of a Belfast constituency. Stephen Michael Orr makes the same objection with regard to Cairnshill. James Marshall makes the same objection with regard to Dunmurry. Antrim and Newtownabbey Council are understandably upset at the dissection of Glengormley. Personally, I grew up in South Belfast myself and am well aware of the strength of local identity; perhaps I have been subconsciously and unnecessarily over-correcting for my own strong feelings.
9. Third, I did not think that it was possible to construct convincing maps that would keep Belfast at four constituencies by annexing surrounding territory. I had not been able to make the figures work out myself, and I remembered being unimpressed by the proposals made by the SDLP last time around. But I think I have been proved wrong on this. The SDLP’s proposed map this time is a much more credible effort to keep Belfast at four constituencies, and the DUP map actually better still.
10. I therefore withdraw my endorsement of my own proposals for a three-seat Belfast submitted to you last year, though of course they remain on the record for you and others to analyse. My proposals for the West of Northern Ireland remain robust, I think.
The DUP map
11. Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself largely accepting the proposals made by the DUP as the best basis for further consideration in the East, if we are to start from the premises that 1) Belfast should if possible be kept to four seats and 2) there should be as little disruption to the southern constituencies as possible. The DUP and SDLP proposals are the only ones that
- preserve a four-seat Belfast,
- keep Fermanagh and South Tyrone largely as it is, and
- assign the Ards Peninsula to North Down.
12. The SDLP proposals, however, are visually less attractive and their numbers for South Belfast are still too small by 86 voters. It’s also worth noting that the DUP proposals move only 213,291 voters to new constituencies, fewer than the 238,845 moved by the SDLP proposals and much fewer than the 363,382 who are moved in the Commission’s Provisional Recommendations. This is surely significant considering Rule 5 (1) c. (The UUP proposals move even fewer voters to new constituencies – only 195,486 – but unfortunately start from a three-seat Belfast.)
13. The DUP proposals are not completely satisfactory – in particular, there are several quite geographically large wards in the hinterland of South Belfast – but I think overall they are the best that can be done for the city, and I have not been able to generate better alternatives (as mentioned above, the SDLP proposals are not as good). They certainly address all the specific objections mentioned above. I therefore endorse the DUP proposals for the four Belfast seats, giving electorates of 72,994 for East Belfast, 73,285 for North Belfast, 69,881 for South Belfast, and 73,732 for West Belfast.
14. The South Belfast number is below 71,031, the lower limit for England, Scotland and Wales (excluding the four island constituencies), but is above the 69,401 limit that applies to Northern Ireland under Rule 7. As I argued in my first submission, the Commission should not hesitate to use the flexibility that Parliament has given it in order to design seats that are suited to Northern Ireland’s unique geographical circumstances.
15. I have the following comments regarding the DUP proposals for elsewhere.
16. A couple of preliminary notes on views arising from the public consultation. I have not changed my mind on the merits of assigning the Ards Peninsula to the Bangor-based seat of North Down, and assigning Dundonald (and possibly the fringes of North Down and Ards District nearest Belfast) elsewhere. I see that the local MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, agrees on that point, as do the Alliance Party, the DUP and the UUP.
17. On a neighbouring issue, I note also that former MP Margaret Ritchie, Claire Hanna MLA and William Bell all write in support of the Commission’s proposal to include Crossgar in South Down, which was also my position in my first submission (and is supported also by the Alliance Party, William Brown and David Whitehead) . Interestingly the SDLP, of which Ms Ritchie is a former leader and Ms Hanna a leading member, and councillor Joe Boyle (also of the SDLP) prefer for Crossgar to be included in Strangford, as do the DUP, David McWhinney, Michael Moriarty, and the UUP.
North Down and Ards
18. I endorse the DUP proposals, which, like my own, include the Ards Peninsula and moves the Loughview ward to East Belfast. They also move Cultra and Holywood to East Belfast, which makes sense given the overall picture of a four-seat Belfast; Holywood is closer to the centre of Belfast than it is to Bangor. This would have an electorate of 70,529 (requiring the invocation of Rule 7).
19. I do not agree with the DUP proposal to change the name to North Down and Ards; North Down is descriptive and accurate enough.
Mid Down / Strangford
20. Because of the DUP’s expansion of Belfast, Strangford can go much further west than in my own proposals, and I endorse the DUP proposal, with the exception that Crossgar and Killyleagh should remain in South Down (per the discussion above) and Banbridge East should be added instead. This would have an electorate of 70,524 (requiring the invocation of Rule 7).
21. Given how far west the constituency now goes, Mid Down would be a much more appropriate name than Strangford.
22. The DUP proposals include Loughbrickland and Banbridge East, where my own original proposals instead had Drumaness, Ballynahinch, and Crossgar and Killyleagh in South Down. Here I would respect local opinion and keep Crossgar and Killyleagh in South Down; however I admit that the map overall will be much easier if South Down also includes Loughbrickland. (But I accept the DUP view that South Down should not include Ballynahinch, Banbridge East or Drumaness.) This would have an electorate of 74,104.
Newry and Armagh
23. The DUP proposals include Loughgall in this constituency rather than Tandragee (which my own proposals and the Boundary Commission’s Provisional Proposals have the other way round). On reflection, I agree with including Loughgall but not Tandragee, and this also meets the objection raised by Philip Agnew. It’s certainly the case that Tandragee is physically much closer to Craigavon than to Armagh. I therefore endorse the DUP proposals for this constituency, which would have an electorate of 75,635.
24. This unfortunately ends up being the seat that is most squeezed by the system, though the DUP proposals are kinder to it than the Boundary Commission was. I have experimented with adding Derrytrasna and subtracting Banbridge East, to improve internal coherence, but unfortunately the numbers are against us and I reluctantly endorse the DUP proposals, giving an electorate of 69,711 (requiring the invocation of Rule 7).
25. This also satisfies Conor and Malachy Mulholland who felt that Aghagallon should be in a Lisburn-based seat rather than Upper Bann and Blackwater.
26. The DUP additionally propose splitting Derrytrasna along the M1, with the northern part going to Lagan Valley/South Antrim and the southern part staying in Upper Bann. I think that is worth exploring and would help with the numbers. As I said in my original proposal, the Commission should follow the example of its fellow Boundary Commissions across the water and feel free to split wards when necessary.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
27. It is really striking how badly the proposed constituency of Upper Bann and Blackwater has been received. Five community associations, the Bush Community Cultural Group,the Dungannon Regeneration Partnership, Granville Residents Association, the Moygashel Residents Association and the Simpson Grant Association all object to the splitting of Dungannon. The detailed proposals from the Alliance Party, Wiliam Brown, the DUP, David McWhinney, the SDLP, the Traditional Unionist Voice, the UUP, David Whitehead and myself all retain Dungannon in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
28. I disagree with the DUP’s proposed addition of Trillick to the constituency; it’s not necessary for the numbers, and it’s a ward that looks to Omagh rather than Enniskillen.
29. Fermanagh and South Tyrone should be as in my own original proposals, with an electorate of 71,036, just within 5% of the UK quota with therefore no need to invoke Rule 7 (though as I have argued above, the Commission should not hesitate to invoke it where necessary).
30. If Fermanagh and South Tyrone is kept as it is, the effect will be that there is not enough space in it for several of the former Omagh district wards which the Commission proposed to include – Dromore, Drumquin, Fintona, Newtownsaville and probably Trillick, let alone the former Strabane wards of Castlederg, Glenderg and Newtown Stewart. This will satisfy the objections raised by Ryan McKinney and William Gordon Nabney to the Provisional Proposals.
West Tyrone/Sperrin/West Tyrone and Sperrin
31. The DUP’s proposal to include the Ballykelly, Dungiven, Feeney and Magilligan wards makes this clumsy and ragged at the northern edge. I stand by my original proposal to include instead the wards of Donaghmore, Oaklands and Pomeroy, and Trillick as noted above, and also to include Claudy in the Foyle constituency. This gives an electorate of 73,583. (My original submission says 73,102 for some reason.) The name Sperrin fits this seat much better than West Tyrone.
32. As noted above, I would change the DUP and Commission proposals by including Claudy in this constituency. It looks much more to Derry than to Coleraine or Limavady. This gives an electorate of 73,934.
Glenshane / Mid Ulster
33. Again, I stand by my original proposal (even though I was not particularly happy with it), which like the DUP’s would add Garvagh and Kilrea to the boundaries proposed by the Commission, but would also add Dungiven, Feeney and Altahullion, while removing Donaghmore, Oaklands and Pomeroy to the West Tyrone/Sperrins constituency. This has an electorate of 70,967 (requiring the invocation of Rule 7).
34. To improve the map, Altahullion could be split with the area south of and including the townlands of Ardinarive and Straw retained in Glenshane and the remainder allocated to the northern coastal constituency. This is unlikely to pull the numbers below 69,401.
East Londonderry and North Antrim / Causeway Coast and Glens / Dalriada
35. The DUP’s proposal to include the Ballycastle area in the northern coastal constituency, rather than Clogh Mills and Rasharkin, is better than mine and I accept it. However at the western end, I remain convinced that my original proposal is better – the seat should include the two coastal wards of Ballykelly and Greysteel, and should not include (most of) Altahullion. This would have an electorate of 76,915.
36. I would further advocate splitting Altahullion by including its territory north of and including the townland of Leeke in the northern coastal seat. This would probably bring a few hundred more voters in, but I think that is unlikely to breach the 78,507 limit.
37. Since the new boundaries map reasonably closely to those of the new district of Causeway Coast and Glens, I recommend that the constituency should also have the name Causeway Coast and Glens.
Bannside / West Antrim / Mid Antrim
38. As noted above, the DUP proposals move Clogh Mills and Rasharkin to this seat, and given the adjustments that must be made elsewhere I accept this. This seat has an electorate of 77,030. Mid Antrim would be a much better name for this seat than West Antrim or Bannside.
39. Given the proposed expansion of North Belfast into Newtownabbey, the DUP proposals are pretty sensible and give an electorate of 75,014.
South Antrim/Lagan Valley
40. Again somewhat reluctantly, I endorse the DUP proposal for “Lagan Valley”, with an electorate of 72,614. However the boundaries now wander so far from the historical Lagan Valley and have shifted northwards to such an extent that I propose making this the successor to South Antrim in name.
41. The DUP propose splitting Derrytrasna along the M1, with the northern part going to Lagan Valley/South Antrim and the southern part to Upper Bann; as noted above, I think that is worth exploring and would probably not bring the numbers for this seat too low.
42. The “crowd-sourcing” element of the Commission’s methodology is worthy of praise. Even when individual commentators are far from the consensus, their thoughts are worth considering.
43. The likelihood that this must all be done again in five years, possibly for a different number of constituencies, is pretty draining. It would be much better for Assembly constituencies at least to be more tightly tied to the local government districts than to Westminster constituencies.
44. I know I say this every time, but it remains true: the redrawing of constituency boundaries is a matter of painful adjustment not only for political parties (in my view, regrettable enough considering the other demands that are placed on them) but also to civil society and for the democratic process as a whole. I am sure that the Commission are mindful of this; I hope that others reading these words are similarly mindful.
2 October 2017