In September 2016, the United Kingdom’s local non-partisan Boundary Commission released its preliminary proposals for the creation of seventeen new electoral constituencies in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland. These districts were expected to come into effect in 2020, catering for all future elections to the House of Commons at Westminster and the Northern Assembly at Stormont. When it became clear that the proposed wards would reflect the ongoing demographic changes in the Six Counties, the growth of the Irish nationalist community and the decline of the unionist one, pro-union politicians demanded alterations to the plans. In fact, what they demanded was the gerrymandering of existing constituencies in the contested region to ensure the continued over-representation of unionist voters.
Twelve months later, media reports made it clear that the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party was using its parliamentary coalition with the minority Conservative Party in London to block or delay the Commission’s proposals while they lobbied for the creation of districts with pro-union majorities, however geographically anomalous their nature.
In the middle of January this year, a leak to the Press Association in Britain publicised a radical redrafting of the Boundary Commission’s supposedly neutral proposals. Gone were the studiously balanced constituencies of 2016 and in their place were gerrymandered electoral areas boosting the chances of a majority of pro-British MPs and MLAs being returned for the UK legacy colony (albeit, by a narrow overall margin).
Despite the vociferous claims made a few weeks ago denying any backroom deals or political wrongdoing, on Tuesday the leaked proposals were published as a formal draft document by the Commission. In the alarmed words of David Ford, the former leader of the moderate pro-union Alliance Party, some of the suggested constituencies were plain “bizarre”.
The psephologist Faha has written a lengthy piece examining the resultant changes in the north for the Irish politics’ blog, We In Coming Days May Be. In it he makes these crucial points:
One does not need to be politically astute to see that these new proposals will obviously benefit only one party – the DUP, at the expense of nationalist and nonsectarian parties. That is the definition of gerrymandering. SF has already noted this publicly.
…these new proposals would result in no nationalist representation in 4 constituencies: Mid Down, East Belfast, East Antrim and North Down. Currently there is one constituency with no unionist representation, West Belfast. There is 2nd, Foyle, on the verge of no unionist representation. These new proposals added enough unionist voters to those 2 constituencies to elect 2 DUP MLA’s. Thus while unionists will be represented in all constituencies there will be no nationalist representation in 4 constituencies. That is how you define gerrymandering.
These proposals will only increase the disillusionment for the political system among nationalist and indeed nonsectarian voters. In 2016 the UK voted to Leave the EU yet 90% of Northern Ireland nationalist voters and 85% of nonsectarian voters voted Remain in Northern Ireland. There will be no Northern Ireland MEPs after the May 2109 European Parliament election so Northern Ireland will have no representation in Europe. The new District Council boundaries were gerrymandered by the DUP with the result that 3 nationalist councils were transferred to unionist controlled councils while no unionist councils were transferred to nationalist control. Unfortunately, SF went along with that DUP gerrymander. SF cannot make that mistake again with these proposals.