As previously noted, the next cycle of regular revisions to the Northern Ireland constituency boundaries has begun, and life for us election anoraks has been immensely sweetened by Kevin Larkin, who has uploaded all the statistics to his Boundary Assistant app. It even has a nifty function where you can add all wards currently in a particular constituency as a bloc, which is a great help. You can play this game for all parts of the UK, but obviously I am concentrating on Northern Ireland in particular.
The rules are that all new constituencies must be within 5% of the UK-wide average (not counting island constituencies) and that the Boundary Commissions (one each for England, Scotland and Wales) must have regard to:
- special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency
- local government boundaries (in Northern Ireland, wards)
- boundaries of existing constituencies;
- any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies
- the inconveniences attendant on such changes.
The biggest winners here are South Belfast, which picks up a lot on the eastern and southern fringes, West Belfast, which gets a few more blocks in the Shankill and also in Dunmurry, and Upper Bann, which benefits from the much larger boundaries of the new Loughbrickland and Banbridge East wards. The biggest losers are South Down, which loses Crossgar to Strangford and eastern fringes of Newry to Newry and Armagh; East Belfast, which loses to South Belfast as noted above, and North Down, which loses Millisle. At the other end of the scale, East Londonderry gains all of 20 voters in the Derryarkin Lower townland from Foyle.
new deviation from
|East Belfast||66,273||-9.7%||63,331||-13.7%||-2,942||+ Cedar Grove
- Lead Hill, Rosemount, Grey Castle, Cregagh
|East Antrim||64,907||-11.6%||63,751||-13.1%||-1,156||+ Princes Drive, Princes Crescent, Fernagh, Abbeyville Park
- Cushendun, Twinburn, Monkstown, Bleach Green Avenue
|North Down||67,109||-8.6%||64,771||-11.7%||-2,338||- Cedar Grove, Millisle|
|West Tyrone||66,339||-9.6%||65,434||-10.8%||-905||- southwestern part of Slievekirk ward|
|Mid Ulster||70,501||-3.9%||68,732||-6.4%||-1,769||- two small strips west of Donaghmore and south of Coalisland|
|West Belfast||65,761||-10.4%||68,918||-6.1%||+3,157||+ Shankill Rd / Tennent St / Crumlin Road / Angers St block, Glenside / Somerdale / Abbeydale / Ingledale, Glenburn Rd in Dunmurry
- Lanark Way, Belfast city centre east of Millfield
|East Londonderry||69,359||-5.5%||69,379||-5.5%||+20||+ small strip of Derryarkin Lower townland|
|Strangford||66,990||-8.7%||69,944||-4.7%||+2,954||+ Millisle, Crossgar
- Doon Pk and southern end of Alveston Pk in Carryduff
|North Belfast||72,332||-1.4%||70,527||-3.9%||-1,805||+ Bleach Green Avenue, Green Acres, Carnhill Parade, Dalewod, Sherwood, Fernridge, Lanark Way
- Princes Drive, Princes Crescent, Fernagh, Abbeyville Park, Abernethy Drive, Carwood, Shankill Rd / Tennent St / Crumlin Road / Angers St block, Glenside / Somerdale / Abbeydale / Ingledale
|South Antrim||71,915||-2.0%||71,646||-2.4%||-269||+ Twinburn, Monkstown, Abernethy Drive, Carwood, Sheepwalk Rd, Killultagh Rd
- Green Acres, Carnhill Parade, Dalewod, Sherwood, Fernridge,
|South Down||79,295||8.0%||73,681||0.4%||-5,614||+ Lurganane
- Crossgar, Katesbridge, Corbet, Annaclone, Ballynaskeagh, Newry: west of Ashgrove Rd and north of Ashgrove Ave and Willow Rd, Ardfreelin, Oaklands
|Fermanagh and South Tyrone||72,945||-0.6%||73,813||0.6%||+868||+ two small strips west of Donaghmore and south of Coalisland
- western end of The Birches ward, northern end of Loughgall ward
|South Belfast||70,134||-4.4%||74,616||1.7%||+4,482||+ Lead Hill, Rosemount, Grey Castle, Cregagh, Doon Pk and southern end of Alveston Pk in Carryduff, Belfast city centre east of Millfield|
|Lagan Valley||75,884||3.4%||74,892||2.0%||-992||+ Glenburn Rd in Dunmurry, Katesbridge
-Sheepwalk Rd, Killultagh Rd
|Foyle||74,431||1.4%||75,308||2.6%||+877||+ southwestern part of Slievekirk ward
- small strip of Derryarkin Lower townland
|North Antrim||77,156||5.1%||78,361||6.8%||+1,205||+ Cushendun|
|Newry and Armagh||81,329||10.8%||82,335||12.2%||+1,006||+ northern end of Loughgall ward, Newry: west of Ashgrove Rd and north of Ashgrove Ave and Willow Rd, Ardfreelin, Oaklands
- Lurganane, Poyntzpass, Mullahead Rd
|Upper Bann||83,028||13.1%||86,249||17.5%||+3,221||+ Corbet, Annaclone, Ballynaskeagh, Poyntzpass, Mullahead Rd, western end of The Birches ward|
There are a couple of weird points on this map, which deserve explanation. South Belfast has a long salient south of Carryduff along the Saintfield Road; Upper Bann and Lagan Valley splurge into the area east of Banbridge. the changes look big on the map but actually involve very few voters.
This all makes a very big difference to the adjustments that will need to be made. Mid Ulster moves from the safe zone into the zone where it is too small for the UK-wide quota but big enough if Rule 7 is used (more on this below). West Belfast also moves into the Rule 7 zone, having previously been way too small. South Down and Strangford, having been too big and too small respectively, are now in the safe zone. The two maps below show the differences. (I'm afraid that I have updated only the numbers and not the boundaries for the second map.)
The Boundary Commission can propose seats which vary more than 5% from the UK-wide quota, but less than 5% from the average of Northern Ireland seats, if it finds that it is otherwise unreasonably constrained in meeting the other criteria above (a-e in the list). This mathematically necessary option has been described as gerrymandering by some foolish commentators. In my view, such an argument can only be made in ignorance or in bad faith. It is also very odd to see anyone other than a hardline abolish-Stormont-and-incorprate-Norn-Iro
However, the Boundary Commission got thoroughly (and not entirely fairly) spanked in the courts in the last round of revisions, and its final report was quashed on two grounds: that it had not sufficiently justified its use of Rule 7, and that it had not paid enough attention to responses opposing Rule 7 and some of its other proposals to its final round of public consultation. It's well worth reading both judgements, the original case which found that the Commission had erred on the second point but not the first, here, and the appeal which found that it was in error on both points and the appropriate remedy was to quash the final recommendations, here. On the second point, I think that the Boundary Commission had a defence that they did not use, in that an awful lot of the public response was generated by slacktivism of the kind I really hate, but the core criticism, that their minds were made up on key issues and they therefore did not give a fair wind to public submissions that went another way, is fair.
On the use of Rule 7, it's very important to observe that the courts did not find that the Boundary Commission was wrong to invoke it, but that it should have explained its working better and also been more open to second-round submissions which opposed using it. And it's certainly fair to say that the Commission could and probably should have shown its work in more detail. But there is no fundamental barrier to invoking it again from the court ruling.
My advice to the Commission is to publish their best map that does not invoke Rule 7, while formally proposing their best map that does invoke Rule 7. The latter will certainly be a better map by any objective measure.
Trying without Rule 7
So, we now have three constituencies over 105% of the UK quota of 73,392, the contiguous Upper Bann and Newry and Armagh by 9,200 and 5,300 respectively, and North Down by just under 1,300; and seven under 95% of the the UK quota, the contiguous East Belfast and North Down by 6,400 and 5,000 respectively, East Antrim by 6,150, the contiguous West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and East Londonderry by 4,300, 1,000 and 350 respectively, and West Belfast by 800. As mentioned, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and West Belfast are above the Rule 7 quota of 68,313 and so would not require change if it is invoked.
From those numbers alone it must be pretty clear that there is a strong case to invoke Rule 7 at the very beginning of the process, rather than in the second round of proposals. However, taking my own advice above, let's make a good faith effort to draw a new map without Rule 7.
The easiest to resolve is West Belfast, which needs another 800 electors. The Lisburn and Castlereagh ward of Derryaghy, most of which is currently in Lagan Valley, has 2800 electors and moving it still leaves Lagan Valley inside the 5% band. Ironically the current northern boundary of the ward was first created when a previous parliamentary boundary review recommended splitting the ward.
North Antrim is 1,300 votes over the limit, and East Antrim 6,000 under. A quick fix for North Antrim anyway is simply to transfer the Torr Head and Rathlin ward, with 2,659 electors, to East Antrim. However, that brings the boundary to the back streets of Ballycastle; if all three wards bordering or including Ballycastle are transferred in the same way (Kilbane, Ballycastle, and Torr Head and Rathlin, with a total of just under 7800 electors) North Antrim and East Antrim now both fall within the limit. This is also defensible on the grounds of local links - Ballycastle surely looks towards the Glens at least as much as it does inland. (And perhaps even more to its west, but that's not an issue here.)
Looking to the south-east, North Down and East Belfast together need 10,350 votes to reach the UK quota. This is tough luck on their neighbouring constituencies, South Belfast and Strangford, which both start ahead of the game. Major changes to South Belfast will have ripple effects across the city and indeed Northern Ireland, so the bulk of these new electors must come from Strangford. The six wards of the Ards Peninsula, with almost 17700 voters, are an obvious candidate for moving to North Down - and because of the geography, if you move Loughries, split by the current boundary with North Down, you have to move the other five. It brings the boundary to the eastern edge of Newtownards, which is inelegant but could be worse.
North Down is now almost 5,400 over the maximum, and East Belfast still 6,400 under. The Holywood and Loughview wards have just under the numbers needed to bring East Belfast over the UK-wide quota, but they do put North Down in the zone, so let's move them.
The other obvious ward to include in East Belfast is Hillfoot, currently a rather odd salient of South Belfast, which brings East Belfast up to the UK-wide quota and leaves South Belfast in the safe zone.
Having solved North Down and East Belfast, Strangford is now 13,500 under the UK limit. Let's leave that for a moment.
The two biggest surpluses are Newry and Armagh, and Upper Bann. To the north and west, they border Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which is in the safe zone, and Mid Ulster, which needs another 1000 voters. However Mid Ulster does not border Newry and Armagh, and the only contiguous Upper Bann ward is The Birches, which would bring the border to the back streets of Portadown (and it's difficult to make the case that The Birches looks north).
So the solution lies internally and eastwards. Internally, one fairly easy fix is for Newry and Armagh to cede the two wards of Tandragee and Loughgall to Upper Bann, with 7400 electors, bringing the more western constituency safely within the quota. Loughgall is already partly in the Upper Bann constituency.
This leaves Upper Bann with a surplus of 12650; Strangford currently has a deficit of 13500; both border both Lagan Valley and South Down. Are there two blocks of wards, both between 13500 and 20800 electors, which can be moved from Upper Bann to South Down or Lagan Valley, and from South Down or Lagan Valley to Strangford, respectively?
Actually, there are. First, the five wards of the Banbridge DEA other than Gilford and Rathfriland are mostly in Upper Bann at present, border South Down and have a total electorate of exactly 17600. And second, the five Downpatrick DEA wards, plus Ballydugan ward, currently in South Down, border Strangford and have a combined electorate of 17400. Moving them puts both Upper Bann and Strangford in the right zone. South Down is considerably altered, but is also in the right zone.
Looking at the west of Northern Ireland, there are three contiguous seats with deficits, West Tyrone (4300), East Londonderry (350) and Mid Ulster (1000). West Tyrone is the biggest problem. The Slievekirk ward, with 2600 electors, is mostly in Foyle but partly in West Tyrone. If it is transferred, the ward of Newbuildings, with another 2800, is enough to bring West Tyrone up to the limit, with Foyle still OK.
That leaves the smaller deviations, Mid Ulster, needing 1000, and East Londonderry, needing 350. This is considerably less than a single ward, but none of the solutions is at all elegant. Moving any of the FST wards bordering Mid Ulster creates difficulties for local ties, but Killyman, with 2,295 voters, is perhaps the least worst (it's still pretty bad) and puts Mid Ulster in the zone.
East Londonderry, despite needing only 350 electors, is a real problem because none of the neighbouring constituencies is more than 1303 over the limit, and all of the neighbouring wards have at least 2300 electors. So moving any one ward will mean that other wards need to be moved into the donor constituency. The small deficit of East Londonderry has massive implications for the map.
The choice is either to trigger much wider changes for the sake of accommodating a relatively small deficit, or splitting a ward. The latter might be doable by (from east to west) East Londonderry taking the village of Ballybogey in North Antrim, splitting Dervock ward; or Macfin, also in North Antrim, splitting Route ward; or Swatragh in East Londonderry, splitting Swatragh ward; Liscloon in West Tyrone, splitting Dunamanagh ward; or possibly the Ardmore part of Slievekirk ward, currently in Foyle but which I would otherwise propose moving to West Tyrone. Without access to the electoral register itself (or at least polling district statistics), it's impossible to know which if any of these could be made to work. All come with the same drawbacks: splitting a ward and disrupting local ties, purely for the sake of meeting the UK-wide quota.
So, a good faith effort to resolve the boundaries without invoking Rule 7 turns out to be impossible without either drastic disruption of local ties or splitting wards. This is as far as we got.
What if Rule 7 were invoked?
First, West Belfast would not need to change at all, apart from the rectification of wards, and consequently neither would Lagan Valley.
East Antrim would mathematically need only two of the three Ballycastle wards currently in North Antrim, but to preserve local ties all three should be transferred.
The proposals for the south east of Northern Ireland are not much affected by applying Rule 7. The only change is that East Belfast no longer needs the Hillfoot ward from South Belfast; the two North Down wards of Holywood and Loughview are sufficient. Geography dictates that the entire Ards Peninsula must go to North Down if any of it does. Downpatrick still goes to Strangford, but the Ballydugan ward is no longer needed.
The rest depends on surpluses and geography, so is unaffected by Rule 7. Loughgall and Tandragee go from Newry and Armagh to Upper Bann, and Banbridge and Loughbrickland from Upper Bann to South Down.
The biggest effect of applying Rule 7 is in the West. Only West Tyrone now needs more electors, and only 2900 of them. As proposed above, they can be found in Slievekirk and Newbuildings.
This leaves four constituencies under the UK-wide limit of 69724, but above the Rule 7 limit of 68313 - East Londonderry, Mid Ulster and East and West Belfast. (Two are currently held by the DUP and two by Sinn Fein.)
The NI anorak community has done its own number crunching. @JohnValenciaRF comes out almost the same as me, with just a couple of wards difference, invoking Rule 7 at the beginning:
My go at an 18-seat NI for the upcoming #BoundaryCommission review. Not madly excited about Newbuildings in WT, but taking from EL leads to knock-on effects elsewhere. @nwbrux @gerrylynch I hope we will see your efforts online some day? pic.twitter.com/kpkpdGdaTL— The Real Riga (@JohnValenciacf) January 14, 2021
Alastair Simpson has gone for wider changes, not really sure why, and I think I talked him out of some of them downthread:
Here is my map for new parliamentary boundaries in Northern Ireland, with existing constituencies outlined in green. I'll be going through each of the new seats to justify some of the decision making.— Alistair Simpson (@ChristiCorvus) January 7, 2021
I'll describe political changes, but these were not taken into consideration. pic.twitter.com/EHp1ciIDNi
I don't think that this contribution was intended entirely seriously:
A sensible suggestion for constituency boundaries in Northern Ireland. pic.twitter.com/rO00TAUZAJ— John Cartwright (@JohnLoony) January 20, 2021
Anyway, still a long way to go.