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Election battle predicted if Belfast loses an MP under new boundary changes

Published 06/09/2016

Belfast will have one less MP if changes to constituency boundaries are given the go-ahead
Belfast will have one less MP if changes to constituency boundaries are given the go-ahead

Belfast is to lose an MP at the next election under proposed changes to Northern Ireland's constituencies.

The city is being redrawn into three Westminster divisions of Belfast East, Belfast North West and Belfast South West, creating the prospect of an election dogfight between high profile nationalist and unionists politicians in the north and west.

The proposals will see Northern Ireland left with 17 MPs as part of a UK wide shake-up to reduce numbers from 650 to 600 by the time of the next election in May 2020.

Outside of Belfast, six new constituencies are being created, provisionally called Dalriada, Glenshane, North Tyrone, Upper Bann and Blackwater, West Antrim and West Down.

Another eight would retain their names - East Antrim, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Foyle, Newry and Armagh, North Down, South Antrim, South Down, and Strangford - but see slight changes to boundaries.

Professor Peter Shirlow , Blair Chair and director of the Institute of Irish Studies in the University of Liverpool, said the boundary changes in north and west Belfast will lead to a fierce contest between Sinn Fein and the DUP in the next election.

"It will almost certainly make the contest tighter," he said.

"For every Protestant/unionist ward you are taking out you are only replacing half of them. You should see a narrowing of the vote."

The proposals from the Northern Ireland constituency review are the first part of a wider redrawing of boundaries across the UK.

Commissions for England and Wales are due to report on September 13 and the proposals for Scotland are due mid-October.

The public will be given a chance to air their views on the changes before any revisions are published in early 2018 with the final proposals not due until October 2018.

The Boundary Commission said a ll the proposed constituencies fall comfortably within the UK quota range of no fewer than 71,031 voters and no more than 78,507.

It said the range in Northern Ireland's 17 proposed constituencies varies from 71,266 for Belfast North West to 74,741 in Strangford.

Deputy chairman of the Commission, the Hon Madam Justice McBride urged people to engage with the review.

"Maintaining public confidence in an open, transparent and accessible review process is an important part of the Commission's approach. Anyone with an interest in the review is encouraged to contribute to this consultation," she said.

Four public hearings are planned during October in Ballymena, Omagh, Belfast and Portadown t o let voters have their say.

A spokesman for the Democratic Unionist Party, whose MP Nigel Dodds holds the Westminster seat in Belfast North, said its advisers had begun pouring over the detail.

"There are very significant changes here and we will have to study them and take a view over time where the party stands," he said.

DUP insiders suggested the changes were much more dramatic than had been expected but that proposals undergo major changes during the review.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey called for Stormont to be given the powers to determine election issues and also questioned why census data is not used instead of the electoral register from last December.

"Clearly this is a substantial piece of work proposing significant changes and will require a detailed response," he said.

A spokesman for the SDLP said: "We have received the suggested changes to constituency boundaries from the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland and the party will be examining these proposals in the time ahead."

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