Following England, Scotland and Wales, the Boundary Commission of Northern Ireland has released its initial proposal for Northern Ireland’s parliamentary constituency boundaries (which will also become Assembly constituency boundaries). Unlike England and Wales, Northern Ireland elections data cannot be broken down beyond constituency level so it is quite difficult to gauge how boundary changes will affect future elections. However, a general picture can be built by looking at 2019 council elections results and census data on religion and nationality.
There will be 18 NI constituencies, as there are now. Towns of a notable size that have moved constituencies are Dungannon, Ballynahinch, Saintfield, and Downpatrick. It is important to note that many of the changes made were purely to remove the numerous split wards from the current map. Only two remain to ensure Millisle is wholly in North Down without cutting the Ards Peninsula off from Newtownards. Most constituencies have seen little change with just chunks of wards containing a handful of people being added or removed. However, there are some where the differences could be significant.
Strangford and Quoile
Previously known as Strangford, this constituency has stretched to include the entire Downpatrick DEA south of Strangford Lough. It loses Ballynahinch, Saintfield, part of Carryduff and some rural areas to the East. This is likely to have a big effect on the constituency. Downpatrick is an SDLP stronghold currently represented by three SDLP councillors, two Sinn Fein and one independent. Combined with the SDLP enclave on the southern Ards Peninsula, this will open up a new opportunity for the party to gain an Assembly seat. The loss of mostly protestant Ballynahinch and Saintfield combined with the addition of Downpatrick makes this current bulletproof DUP stronghold (holding 3/5 MLA seats and a safe Westminster seat) a lot less unionist. It will still probably be a unionist seat in the future but with the Alliance Party surging there in 2019 and SDLP becoming a larger factor, it will be tighter.
Verdict: Remains unionist but with a much larger nationalist contingent.
Having been an SDLP Westminster constituency for a long time, Sinn Fein won this seat in 2017 and narrowly retained it in 2019. However, their task should become easier due to the loss of the previously discussed Downpatrick DEA. Without those SDLP votes, Sinn Fein should have an easier time retaining their seat next time around. Added in the north is Ballynahinch which is a protestant majority town. This will likely help secure a unionist seat in the Assembly in the constituency. Jim Wells is currently the sole unionist in the constituency, and he may well be at risk next year. However, come 2027 a unionist party will probably find it easier to win a seat.
Verdict: Safer for Sinn Fein and marginally better for unionists.
Belfast South and Mid Down
The other constituency to change its name is Belfast South and Mid Down, previously known as Belfast South. It was previously nearly all urban but now it incorporates the rural town of Saintfield and its surrounding countryside and the part of Carryduff not previously part of the constituency. It loses parts of the working-class inner-city Cregagh, Hillfoot and Woodstock wards. Adding Saintfield and its surrounding farmers will add a fair few unionists to the constituency. Similar to the existing constituency Carryduff is extremely mixed religiously and in its council representation. The loss of those inner-city wards which are heavily protestant will help balance out the rural additions. Overall, this constituency will likely become slightly more unionist but probably not enough to seriously shake up the political representation.
Verdict: Slightly more unionist but remains very mixed despite the rural additions.
The biggest town to move constituencies is Dungannon which moves to Mid Ulster along with most of Dungannon DEA. Three unionist councillors, two nationalists and one independent represent this DEA despite being 60% catholic. Two heavily catholic rural wards move to West Tyrone. These changes will make the constituency somewhat less nationalist. Sinn Fein’s Westminster seat will remain safe, but it may become tougher for them to hold three assembly seats again.
Verdict: More unionist but remains a strong Sinn Fein constituency.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Dungannon DEA was taken from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, one of the UK’s most marginal constituencies. In 2019 Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won the seat by just 57 votes over the UUP’s Tom Elliot. The loss of Dungannon may be enough just to shift the seat into a more comfortable position for Sinn Fein. It may not matter anyway if the UUP continues with their new policy of no electoral pacts (the DUP didn’t run a candidate in 2019).
Verdict: Probably prevents repeat of knife edge previous elections but will remain competitive.
The shape of East Antrim has changed quite dramatically due to the addition of three large rural wards. Two of them are extremely protestant whilst one is very catholic. All three come from Braid DEA which is represented by three DUP councillors, two TUV, one UUP and one Alliance (i.e. a hard-line unionist area). It also adds the unionist Jordanstown ward from the outer reaches of South Antrim. This new configuration would protect DUP MP Sammy Wilson from a rising Alliance party in the constituency. It would also crush any chance a nationalist had of winning an Assembly seat.
Verdict: Notably more unionist
The heavily protestant rural wards added to East Antrim have been moved from North Antrim. This would ensure the already safe Sinn Fein Assembly seat is utterly baked in and would damage the TUV’s chances of winning a 2nd seat there. Despite this, Ian Paisley Jr will still have a seat assuming his constituents don’t run out of patience with his endless controversies.
Verdict: More nationalist and bad news for the TUV
Overall, this map has improvements for both nationalist and unionist parties. The removal of all those split wards is a welcome change. None of these changes are likely to cause a change in MP. They will however give useful boosts to a number of parties looking to gain or shore up Assembly seats. They will likely change the picture somewhat in the races for the final seats in various constituencies without causing a major shakeup of representation. There is not likely to be much effect on the non-sectarian parties as the changes in most of Belfast, North Down, Lagan Valley and Foyle have been minimal.
These boundaries are now open for public consultation until December 15, 2021. The commission has until July 1, 2023 to finalize its proposals. It is important to note that these proposals will have no bearing on the 2022 NI Assembly election boundaries but will be in place for the 2027 election.