Belfast could find itself without any unionist MPs

Posted By: September 06, 2016

Brian Feeney. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The most dramatic proposals of the Boundary Commission reflect in graphic style two trends which have been evident over the past 40 years: the reduction in the population of the city of Belfast and the growing nationalist proportion of the city’s population.

The results will be a powerful psychological shock to Unionists.

First, Belfast is reduced to three seats and secondly, and most controversially, it’s a distinct possibility that for the first time there will be no unionist MP elected from Belfast.

Let’s look at the three constituencies.

Belfast South West is a slam dunk – a Sinn Féin seat. With the wards of Beechmount, Clonard and Falls all going into Belfast North West, that looks certain also to go to Sinn Féin.

In East Belfast Naomi Long looks “in” with a very good chance. Indeed,  she is a certainty if there is not an agreed Unionist candidate. The wards of Ormeau, Rosetta and Belvoir added to East Belfast all offer more middle-class Protestant and Catholic voters to Alliance.

East Derry “goes,” and with it Gregory Campbell— perhaps the most attractive of all the Boundary Commission’s proposals. The new constituency of Glenshane running from the north coast through Limavady and south Derry to Lough Neagh will almost certainly go to Sinn Féin.

Elsewhere, despite new names like Dalriada and North Tyrone, it’s pretty well as you were, though Fermanagh and South Tyrone will, as ever, be a nerve-wracking contest.There the boundary moves far north to include the unionist wards of GlendergCastlederg and Newtownstewart but also the nationalist districts of Drumquin, Dromore and Trillick.

However, in the east the constituency loses the unionist wards of Moygashel and Killyman.

It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other as always in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Coalisland and Dungannon will be deeply unhappy to go into the new Upper Bann and Blackwater constituency along with Portadown and Craigavon, making for another intensely contested battle.

It’s risky to make predictions today given that boundaries could change after appeals but it looks like a fairly equitable job by the boundary commissioners, with eight nationalist and eight unionist seats and a good chance of one Alliance.

Of course agreed candidates and split nationalist or unionist votes can alter that outcome radically but that looks the way the wards add up in each constituency.

There are other consequences apart from Westminster seats, however, which are beyond the remit of the Boundary Commission.

The main one is that 17 constituencies mean 85 assembly members in the 2021 election (no, there won’t be a united Ireland by then), which goes against the proposal in the Fresh Start agreement for 90 MLAs.

Almost no-one, except MLAs, will quarrel with the reduction in the assembly members up there with their noses in the trough, but reducing the constituencies from six members to five may have consequences for smaller parties or the last person elected in 2016.

Given that outcome perhaps it’s time Stormont decided how many MLAs there should be rather than the NIO. Why is it tied to Westminster?

In Scotland the Scottish government determines the number of members in the Scottish parliament, but then it’s a government whereas here Stormont is a glorified county council.

One final point is that in democratic terms, instead of deciding the number of voters in a constituency by the voting register why not use the census? It’s a much more accurate indication of the population than those who bother to register to vote.

Lastly, stand by for the hullaballoo from unionism about their drastic change of fortunes in Belfast.