Northern Ireland boundary changes could scupper May

Written By: David Hencke
Published: July 16, 2017 Last modified: July 16, 2017

The fragile arrangement between Theresa May’s government and the Democratic Unionist Party could fall apart next year because of highly controversial proposals by the boundary commission to redraw constituencies which could cut DUP representation by nearly a third.

Under plans introduced by David Cameron and backed by Theresa May, Parliamentary seats will be cut from 650 to 600 – and the number in Northern Ireland from 18 to 17.

The boundary commission is recommending not only the loss of one seat in Belfast but is redrawing all the other seats. The result is expected to change one Sinn Fein seat from a marginal to a safe constituency and lead to the DUP losing two other seats to Sinn Fein – if the election result is similar to the one in June. The DUP could also lose out by the abolition of one of the Belfast seats.

As a result the DUP would lose three of its ten seats and Sinn Fein would become the largest Northern Ireland party, with nine seats to the DUP’s seven. One seat would remain independent.

Not surprisingly the proposal has led to strong representations to the boundary commission from the DUP to make them change their minds. The commission, however, are independent of government and have a remit to change the number of Northern Ireland seats to fit the national formula for 600 seats across the UK.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, which will disappear to become part of a new constituency under the changes, said: “The proposals are not welcome. We have made representations to the Boundary Commission to get them changed and expect them to publish their final proposals in September”.

More seriously for the government, the proposals are not part of the deal agreed with the DUP on “confidence and supply”. This was confirmed by Sir Jeffery, meaning that the government could face a defeat in the Commons next year if the DUP decide to vote them down – denting the government’s position still further and possibly triggering a general election before Brexit negotiations are completed.

Such a defeat would cause enormous damage for ministers because it would mean that the next full term general election, originally scheduled for 2020 and but now 2022, will have to be fought on the present boundaries. These are now years out of date. The present boundaries favour Labour; the new ones would favour the Tories because so many inner city seats face abolition.

There is no provision under the Act which set up the boundary review to allow any special concessions for Northern Ireland – which means May is powerless to try and change them. Any such move would anyway be regarded as a return to gerrymandering.

About David Hencke

David Hencke is Tribune’s Westminster Correspondent