A political firestorm has erupted over the Conservatives’ alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), after a map detailing proposed new constituency boundaries for Northern Ireland was obtained by the Press Association (PA). The new boundaries shown on the map, which hasn’t been confirmed as a final version, dramatically favour the DUP at the expense of Sinn Féin.
The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland briefly published the map – named “2018 revised proposals” – during a website test. It was later deleted, but PA obtained a copy:
BREAKING – Belfast set to retain 4 electoral constituencies as part of major revisions to proposals to redraw boundaries in NI, according to a Boundary Commission map obtained by @PA – new map radically different to politically contentious 2016 plan to cut seats from 18 to 17. pic.twitter.com/CxzVCYjeKH
— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) January 17, 2018
A radical change
Two days after winning the 2015 general election, senior Conservatives said redrawing Britain’s constituency boundaries would be their top priority. In 2016, amid accusations of gerrymandering, a boundary review was launched. Its aim was to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 across the UK, including reducing Northern Ireland’s MPs from 18 to 17.
The changes looked set to lock the Conservatives into power at Westminster. In 2017, analysts suggested that the political landscape in Northern Ireland would also radically change. The DUP would lose three seats and Sinn Féin would gain two, becoming Northern Ireland’s biggest party. Sinn Féin would have nine MPs, and the DUP just seven. The DUP roundly criticised the plans and, in October 2017, called for “new and revised” boundary proposals.
The new map radically changes that picture. The Belfast Telegraph reports:
The changes now on the table would see the DUP still the biggest party at Westminster with 10 seats to Sinn Féin’s seven.
Sinn Féin says any move by the Conservatives to row back on proposed boundary changes would amount to gerrymandering to placate the DUP. In a statement seen by The Canary, Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy warned that, if the map was accurate:
it would mean that the Tories have again acquiesced to the DUP’s anti-democratic agenda… That is entirely unacceptable and further evidence of the British Government’s ongoing refusal to act in an impartial manner as they are obliged to under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
A DUP spokesperson told The Canary:
We will consider any Boundary Commission proposals when there is an official publication.
The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, an independent body, declined to elaborate on its spokesperson’s earlier comment to PA:
During the preparation for our revised proposal consultation, which begins on 30 January 2018, the functionality of the website was being tested including the interactive map facility. The interactive map facility was accessed during this testing phase. The commission will be proceeding with the revised consultation on 30 January as planned.
The Conservative Party did not respond to The Canary‘s request for comment. But The Telegraph reports that Conservative sources are now “cautiously optimistic” that the DUP will back the proposals. This follows widespread speculation that the boundary review could be scrapped in the face of opposition from the DUP and others.
The peace process
The Good Friday Agreement requires the UK government to act with “rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”.
When the Conservatives struck their £1bn deal with the DUP to keep themselves in power, political figures from former UK prime minister John Major to recent Irish premier Enda Kenny warned that it could put the peace process at risk.
Any attempt to play politics with Northern Ireland’s political boundaries for short-term political gain could have devastating, long-term repercussions.
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