The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland released their preliminary proposals for the new 17 Westminster constituencies that will take effect with the 2020 Westminster election. There has been much speculation in the media on the implications of the new boundaries. Much of this speculation seems to be based on a lack of awareness of the rationale behind the decisions of the Boundary Commission and the restrictions imposed by the recent Westminster legislation regarding the Boundary Review. The Boundary Commission published a full report with their recommendations which can be reviewed at their website.
I am presenting a thorough review of the demographics of the new constituencies based on the 2011 census. Many of the new wards do not match the boundaries of the old wards used for the census but I used the census Outputs Areas (OA’s) to determine as accurately as possible the demographics where the old wards are divided between 2 constituencies.
These are the demographics for each of the 17 new Westminster constituencies.
The most striking feature of the new constituencies is that there is a Catholic majority in 9 of the 17 constituencies. The current 18 constituencies have a Catholic majority in 7. This is partly due to the geographical and numerical constraints required by the legislation. A constituency can contain no fewer than 71,031 voters and no more than 78,507. In the current constituencies, those with the largest Protestant population are East Belfast, North Down, Strangford and East Antrim. All these constituencies are at least 10,000 voters below the average quota and needed to expand further west to collectively add 40,000 new voters. This had a knock on effect for other constituencies. I will explain this further when analyzing each constituency.
(View original map on website here )
For my analysis I will refer to any demographic changes and the expected results for the Westminster and Assembly elections. The next Assembly will have only 5 MLA’s elected per constituency and the Assembly will decrease from the current 108 to 85 members.
Although this is a nationalist blog I am beginning with North Down because the changes to North Down were the only ones possible due to geography and the quota requirements. It is geographically possible that the Ards Peninsula could have been added to North Down. However, this would have resulted in a constituency that was 1,000 over the maximum quota and thus cannot be allowed. The only alternative was to add the 5 Dundonald area wards. This decision basically then determined the nature of the Belfast constituencies and had a knock on effect that extended across Northern Ireland. The new North Down is even more unionist than the current one. Millisle was removed (geographical constraint) and 5 Dundonald area wards were added.
Westminster: Sylvia Hermon would still win here but when she retires this will definitely be won by the DUP as there is a large DUP vote in the 5 Dundonald area wards.
Assembly: The current Assembly has 1 Green and 1 Alliance MLA’s and the non unionist vote was 35%. That will decrease to the 33% range but still enough for 2 non unionist quotas (33.3%).
The 5 Dundonald area wards were removed and 7 wards were added from South Belfast. This increased the Catholic population to 21.7% which is 9% higher than the current constituency. This constituency had the highest rate of increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2011 and will be near 27% for the 2020 and 2021 elections.
Westminster: If the Dundonald wards had been removed in 2015 Naomi Long would have won the election by 1% to 2% in the remainder of the constituency. Since the wards added from South Belfast have a net Catholic majority and the Alliance Party polls well in those wards the Alliance Party could win with a moderate amount of tactical voting by SDLP and SF voters even with a the current arrangement of a Unionist electoral pact.
Assembly: The non unionist vote was almost 40% in 2016 but with the removal of the Dundonald wards and the addition of the South Belfast wards it will be over 50% in 2021. The DUP would still win 2 seats but there would be 3 non unionist seats. Based on 2016 it would be 2 Alliance and 1 Green. However, SF and the SDLP have traditionally ignored East Belfast and even with that complete lack of effort in the East Belfast wards the nationalist vote was 10% within these boundaries in 2016. It is possible that either could win a seat in 2021 at the expense of Alliance or Green.
This constituency consists of most of the current West Belfast wards except for the 3 unionist Court wards and 3 nationalist wards of Lower Falls. 8 wards were added from South Belfast. The new constituency is only 23% Protestant and still overwhelmingly nationalist.
Westminster: This will still be a safe SF seat though with less than 50% of the vote.
Assembly: Based on the 2016 results there should be 3 SF and 1 PBP elected with the last seat either the SDLP or DUP. The total unionist vote was approximately 15% to 16% which is less than a quota of 16.7%. The reason it is so much less than the 23% of the Protestant population is due to lower turnout compared to the West Belfast wards (some are students who do not vote here) and significant numbers vote Alliance or Green. The DUP would need Alliance or Green transfers as well as all the UUP transfers which may not occur.
This constituency consists of the Court, Oldpark and Castle DEA’s as well as Beechmount ward and 2 wards from Newtownabbey. It is 6.5% more Catholic than the current North Belfast.
Westminster: The changes here would have and will have a dramatic effect on the Westminster results. The unionist wards removed from Macedon were exactly balanced by the addition of 3 unionist wards of Court. However, additional unionist voters were removed from 4 other Newtownabbey wards. 3 entirely nationalist wards were added from Lower Falls. There were some nationalist voters lost from 4 of the Newtownabbey wards but half those were voting SDLP or Alliance whereas the SF vote in Lower Falls is very high. It is likely that the SF vote would have been 6.5% higher in 2015 and the DUP vote 6.5% lower which means that the SF and DUP would have each had 40.5%. It is unlikely that PBP would stand here in 2020 and SF have a slight edge for 2020 due to 5 more years of demographic changes.
Assembly: There will still be 3 nationalist seats here but 1 DUP seat will be lost due to the reduction to 5 seats. The SDLP should win a seat with Alliance and UUP transfers.
South Down is basically unchanged with one ward removed and one added.
Westminster: Margaret Ritchie will easily win reelection.
Assembly: With the reduction to 5 seats it should be 2 SDLP, 1 SF and 2 unionists. The unionist electorate is far below 2 quotas but low nationalist turnout will result in 2 unionists elected.
Newry and Armagh
2 wards in the north were removed and the Mahon ward added. This was a puzzling change since Mahon is an urban ward in Portadown and the rural Blackwatertown ward (old Ballymartin and Charlemont wards) that was removed has always been part of the constituency. This may be challenged.
Westminster: No change here and an easy victory for SF.
Assembly: With the reduction to 5 seats it should be 1 SDLP, 2 SF and 2 unionists. The unionist electorate is below 2 quotas but low nationalist turnout will result in 2 unionists elected.
Upper Bann and Blackwater:
This constituency consists of the Lurgan, Craigavon and Portadown areas as well the Dungannon and Coalisland areas. The Banbridge wards and wards south of Lurgan and Craigavon were removed. The wards removed were over 3/4 unionist and the wards added are over 2/3 nationalist. This totally changed the demographics so that the Catholic population increased from 44% to 58%.
Westminster: The only way the DUP can hold this seat is through a unionist pact which will certainly occur once the DUP and UUP have realized the extent of the demographic changes. Without a pact both unionist candidates would poll less than 25% each and SF would be near 40%. The ward changes favour SF since the Banbridge area wards are where the SDLP vote exceed the SF vote and these were removed. Nationalist turnout is very low here but a unionist pact would still be needed to hold the seat for the DUP
Assembly: Although the new constituency has a nationalist-unionist breakdown of 60% to 40% nationalist turnout is so low here there could still be 3 unionist elected. There will be 2 SF, 1 UUP and 1 DUP. The last seat will be between the SDLP and the DUP and will depend on turnout and Alliance transfers.
Fermanagh South Tyrone
This constituency was changed dramatically with the removal of the Dungannon area wards and the addition of 8 wards from Omagh and Strabane. It is 1% more Catholic and 1% less Protestant than the current constituency.
Westminster: The 2% net change in the demographics may seem minor but this is not true. The Catholic population removed in Dungannon Town include a large number of EU nationals who cannot vote in Westminster elections. The Catholic population added in Omagh and Strabane is entirely native Catholics who do vote in higher numbers than those in Dungannon. Even the 2% nominal shift would have resulted in a 500 vote SF victory in 2015 but the actual margin would have been over 1,000 given the changes in the nature of the voters.
Assembly: There will be 1 DUP seat lost here due to the reduction to 5 seats. Otherwise it will be 2 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP and 1 DUP.
The North Tyrone constituency is a combination of the current Mid Ulster and West Tyrone constituencies. It stretches from Strabane town to Cookstown. It is almost 70% Catholic
Westminster: This will be a safe SF seat. The only question is who the candidate is since North Tyrone contains both parts of the present Mid Ulster and West Tyrone constituencies.
Assembly: The results will probably be 2 SF, 1 SDLP and 2 unionists. As with other constituencies the Protestant electorate is less than 2 quotas but due to poor nationalist turnout 2 unionists will be elected here.
The only change in Foyle was the addition of 1,000 voters from the old Slievekirk wards.
Westminster: No change here and this seat belongs to Mark Durkan for as long as he wishes to contest it.
Assembly: The addition of the 1,000 voters from Slievekirk actually saved the unionist seat here since 900 of those voters are unionist. In the 2016 election the DUP would have barely reached a quota if it were only 5 seats. Those additional unionist voters from Slievekirk will save the unionist seat for at least one more election.
This new constituency is a combination of the northern half of Mid Ulster and the Limavady and Bann DEA wards. It excludes all the Coleraine urban wards. It is 59% Catholic.
Westminster: The only way a unionist can win this seat is with an electoral pact which will almost certainly be arranged. Nationalist turnout is low in the Limavady Town and Bann DEAs so the total nationalist vote would be in the 56% range and the unionist vote near 44%. It is possible that SF could reach 44% but the SDLP vote is approximately the same as the SF vote in Limavady Town and Bann DEA.
Assembly: Probably 2 SF, 1 SDLP and 2 unionists.
A new constituency comprising the Coleraine urban area as well as the Ballymoney and Moyle councils and wards north of Ballymena Town.
Westminster: Gregory Campbell will probably move to this area to compete and win the seat for the DUP.
Assembly: Theoretically since the Catholic electorate is 33% there should be 2 nationalist quotas. However, nationalist voters in the Coleraine area have been boycotting elections for many years (except for the Brexit vote) so the result will be 1 SF, 1 TUV, 1 UUP and 2 DUP.
This constituency consists of the town of Ballymena and wards to the south. It extends to include the Dunsilly and Ballyclare DEA’s as well as 6 wards from the urban Newtownabbey area. It is 21% Catholic.
Westminster: This is strong DUP territory and should be an easy victory for Ian Paisley.
Assembly: There should be one nationalist seat here with a 21% Catholic population but turnout is so low that SF or the SDLP will struggle to reach one quota of 16.7%. The other 4 seats will be 2 DUP, 1 TUV and 1 UUP.
East Antrim lost the Glens wards from Moyle and gained several wards from the urban Newtownabbey area including most of Macedon DEA. The new East Antrim is 2% less Catholic.
Westminster: An easy victory for Sammy Wilson here
Assembly: SF will lose their seat here as the 3 overwhelmingly nationalist wards from the Glens were removed. The result should be 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 2 DUP with the 5th seat either DUP, UKIP or TUV.
This constituency had major changes with the Dunsilly and Ballyclare DEA’s removed as well as several wards from the urban Newtownabbey area. All of the Killultugh and Lisburn North and Lisburn South DEA’s were added. There were 2 Lisburn town wards (Hillhall and Blaris) that were not added. The demographic makeup is identical to the current South Antrim.
Westminster: This seat will likely be regained by the DUP. Danny Kinahan is losing areas where there is a significant UUP vote and gaining Lisburn town wards that are strongly DUP.
Assembly: There are 3 unionist seats here, 2 DUP and 1 UUP. The 2 non unionist seats are difficult to predict. The SDLP lost by only 220 votes to Alliance in 2016 and David Ford could retire by 2021. The Lisburn wards added have some of the lowest nationalist turnout in Northern Ireland and both SF and the SDLP poll poorly in Lisburn Town but Alliance does not poll well either.
This new constituency comprises the rural wards of Lisburn council and extends east into Castlereagh and south to include Banbridge Town and several other wards from the current Upper Bann. It is 25% Catholic.
Westminster: Jeffrey Donaldson should easily win this seat for the DUP
Assembly: There is 1 nationalist seat here which will be SDLP. There is also 1 Alliance, 1 UUP and 2 DUP.
Clearly the boundary changes will have a dramatic effect on the results of the 2020 Westminster election. If there are no electoral pacts the DUP will lose their seats in Upper Bann & Blackwater, Belfast Northwest and probably Belfast Southeast. The UUP will lose their seats in Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Antrim. SF would win 7 seats, the SDLP 2, the DUP 6, Alliance 1 and Sylvia Hermon in North Down. The SF total would equal the entire unionist total. However, there will be electoral pacts between the unionist parties. These pacts will cover Glenshane, Fermanagh South Tyrone, Upper Bann & Blackwater, Belfast Southeast and Belfast Northwest. Since the DUP currently hold 3 of those seats it is likely that the UUP will be given Glenshane. It will be important for SF and the SDLP to consider a nationalist electoral pact. Clearly it is not in the interest of Northern Ireland to have more unionist MP’s at Westminster since they are actively working against the interests of the people of Northern Ireland as seen by the recent support of the DUP for Brexit. A reasonable pact would be for SF to stand in Belfast Northwest and the SDLP in Belfast Southeast. SF would stand in Fermanagh South Tyrone and Upper Bann & Blackwater and the SDLP in Glenshane. With a nationalist electoral pact there would be 6 SF and 3 SDLP MP’s elected. For the SDLP to agree to an electoral pact SF would need to agree to take their seats at Westminster. Brexit will take place in 2019. The economic impact on Northern Ireland could be potentially devastating and there is the prospect of a hard border being imposed which is totally unacceptable to nationalists. Absentee MP’s are no longer a viable strategy. With more nationalist than unionist MP’s the unionist MP’s influence will be muted.
There will be District Council elections in 2019 and the results will give us a good idea of what the Westminster and Assembly results will be in 2020 and 2021. The Westminster results are much more important. The Assembly has no tax raising powers so the size of the Northern Ireland budget is determined at Westminster. While the Assembly results are interesting it does not matter whether there are 32 nationalist MLA’s or 40, or whether there are 43 unionist MLA’s or 38. There will still be a mandatory power sharing government with SF and the DUP.
There will be some changes to these preliminary proposals. Based on previous reviews there will be no major changes. Any proposed changes will need to comply with the quota range of 71,031 to 78,507. It is difficult to propose any changes involving multiple wards due to the unpredictable knock on effect to adjoining constituencies. There are some questionable boundaries in these proposals. For example, one ward in Dungannon Town (Mullaghmore) was include in North Tyrone while all the other ward were put in Upper Bann & Blackwater. Carryduff was divided between 2 constituencies and Castlereagh South was basically split between Strangford and West Down. Most of Lisburn Town was included in South Antrim but 2 wards (Blaris and Hillhall) were put in West Down. Newtownabbey was divided among 4 constituencies in an awkward manner. The Boundary Commission will eventually make a few minor ward shifts but the initial proposal we see will be very similar to the final boundaries.