A solution or a fix?

7 Sep 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Sep 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Proposals for new electoral boundaries in Northern Ireland are out for consultation. So far, so calm - but expect more fiery opposition, and support, when the effects on party representation in Stormont are seen more clearly. 

The reaction to the Boundary Commission’s (BCNI) proposed changes to local constituencies has been predictable.

Parties that feel they may suffer in terms of representation have been more critical than others but overall the response has been cautious.

This is because the BCNI’s suggestions are just that. The matter is now open for consultation and will be subject to intense lobbying from all political directions.

Systems where targets are used as a practical proxy for some more subtle aim are inevitably corrupted to some degree; the set targets, rather than what they are chosen to represent, become the focus.

Politics is no different except insofar that it is an extreme example. Parliamentary democracy is supposed to reflect the will and opinions of the people generally. This abstraction is boiled down, at the individual level, to a vote.

But it does not end there. Votes are not the ultimate proxy for the will and opinions of the people, bums on seats are; specifically, the elected bums perching on the bench seats in any given legislature.

Redraw constituent boundaries and the same votes by the same individuals with the same wills and opinions can result in wildly different results.

Political parties, mostly long-established beasts who know that representative numbers equate to legislative power, measure success almost entirely by the number of people elected - their targets - and not that nebulous will-and-opinions thing that is so hard to truly, accurately measure.


None of the parties likely to lose out have gone screaming mad, everything is still to play for and no-one wants to look ridiculous before the real game begins.

Even the party that appears to benefit most from the adjustments as they stand – Sinn Fein – has been reserved, querying the use of “data from the December 2015 electoral register as their basis for drawing the new constituencies rather than Census data which is standard international practice.”

The other major point is that, while the effects on Westminster representation might be relatively easy to predict, how this will play out at Stormont – where the new constituencies will come into effect at the same time as a reduction in MLAs per constituency from six to five – will require a far more detailed study.

BBC NI has done a very handy, first-look guide to the changes and their consequences which is available here.

Despite Westminster’s primacy, the NI Assembly is much more important to all of the parties and whatever likely outcomes are thrown up here by analysis of votes will be the major factor in parties’ support or opposition to the proposals.

For now, the DUP says there is a long way to go and many aspects will change, while Alliance suggested some of the changes perhaps look unnatural but have also said the party will take matters under consideration before forming an opinion. The SDLP has said even less, merely that it will take time to reflect.

Burgeoning objections

This is not to say all the powder is entirely dry.

UUP man Lord Empey said the proposals are “puzzling” and questioned whether natural ties had been taken into account.

One example he brought forward was Ballybeen “which in local government terms is linked with Lisburn and Castlereagh, but for Westminster and the Assembly is now linked to North Down. These are peculiar choices.”

Of course, Lord Empey was in a flap two years ago when Lisburn and Castlereagh were merged together into one supercouncil as well. On that front, there is a point to be made – Lisburn and Castlereagh were not necessarily natural partners.

Despite his own party’s neutral tone, DUP MLA Adrian McQuillan came out against the removal of the name Londonderry from the constituency map – a rather more symbolic than substantive complaint.

But the lines have to fall somewhere. The best response to all these suggestions is to ask what a perfect solution would look like.


Gerrymandering is the deliberate construction of electoral districts to provide advantages to one or more political parties at the expense of others. It is a foul debasement of the democratic process and something with which Northern Ireland has a dark history.

This, in part, is why questions about “natural boundaries” and hinterlands seem so important. Unnatural changes can easily be conflated with manufactured boundaries – sometimes rightly so - the first sign of a gerrymander.

But any such accusations look flimsy in the face of the rules the BCNI followed in constructing its proposals.

The BCNI is compelled to ensure that each constituency has an electorate that is within 5% of the United Kingdom electoral quota - i.e. that each constituency shall have an electorate of between 71,031 and 78,507, with the quota being 74,769, based on the number of registered electors on 1 December 2015. It also decided to use local government wards as the “building blocks” for the new constituencies.

Whatever the outcomes of this consultation it is unlikely to come close to replicating some of the epic electoral results seen in Northern Ireland between the 1920s and 1960s (and note that this largely took place on a local government level).

If the method is reasonable then, when Lord Empey says these changes appear to help nationalists, the reasonable question to ask is whether he agrees the current set up helps unionists.

Jim Allister maybe has a point that Cullybackey is, in effect, a satellite village of Ballymena – but the fact that they are in separate constituencies does not mean the fix is in or, as Mr Allister is suggesting, that the new proposals are “absurd”.

The simple truth is that any places near a constituency border will likely have very close ties to places just on the other side of that border, in a different constituency. There is no getting away from this.

Working out

There is no perfectly natural way to divide up Northern Ireland using hard lines. It’s one place, where different parts blend into the next in every direction.

Quibbles can be made and heckles can be raised no matter the carve up.

What is hard to argue with are the criteria – the 5% margin and the use of local electoral wards as base units – that the BCNI has chosen to adhere to in offering these initial proposals and, hopefully, any subsequent ones.

The BCNI report said that local ties and the geography of the land were taken into account, as well as a desire to create “manageable shapes” and at least one significant town in each – while party political considerations were ignored entirely.

It was inevitable that Belfast would lose one constituency, to better reflect population spread. That has happened and, as we are cutting the number of areas from 18 to 17, one would expect the changes would then flow outwards, ripples in a pond, resulting in an entirely different set of constituent boundaries.

A cursory glance at the proposed new map would give the impression that this is the case.

Of course there will be, or could be, party political winners and losers emanating from redrawn boundaries – but that fact is a simply a natural corollary to the manifest imperfection of any practical democratic system.

Bums on seats are never absolutely representative.

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