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Unionism is spooked by 'radical and uncalled for' boundary change plans

By Suzanne Breen

TUV leader Jim Allister has said that proposed boundary changes which would see Sinn Fein become the largest Northern Ireland party at Westminster must be "robustly resisted".

As revealed in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, the local political landscape would be dramatically changed under the blueprint, with the DUP losing three MPs and Sinn Fein gaining two.

The redrawing of the electoral map would leave Sinn Fein with nine MPs to the DUP's seven, according to the UK's leading election prediction website Electoral Calculus.

The Alliance Party said it believed the Boundary Commission had done a good enough job free from political considerations. The Ulster Unionists vowed to challenge the proposals.

The DUP didn't comment but, given the drastic consequences for her party, Arlene Foster may prioritise the issue in her discussions with Theresa May.

Mr Allister said: "Proposals which would reward a party which received less than 30% of the vote with more than 50% of the seats are clearly seriously flawed. Should they be allowed to go ahead, they would have serious long-term consequences for Northern Ireland, not just at Westminster but also at Assembly level. All democrats should robustly resist these proposals."

The number of seats in Northern Ireland would fall from 18 to 17 as part of a UK-wide shake-up to reduce House of Commons numbers from 650 to 600.

If the Boundary Commission's blueprint is approved by Parliament, the changes would come into effect next year.

Belfast would lose an MP. The DUP would safely hold East Belfast but Sinn Fein would win the two new constituencies of Belfast North West and Belfast South West if last week's voting patterns were repeated.

The party would win the new constituencies of Upper Bann and Blackwater, Glenshane, and Tyrone North. It would hold South Down, Foyle, Newry and Armagh, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

In the latter, the Ulster Unionists' Tom Elliott would have no chance of ever taking back the constituency, as Sinn Fein would widen its lead over him with Michelle Gildernew securing 49% to the UUP man's 36% if last week's results were replicated.

Mr Elliott said: "The Boundary Commission proposals just don't make sense. Substantial change was needed in four or five constituencies, but only minor tweaking in the rest. Instead, we have seen major surgery almost everywhere."

He said that his own constituency already complied with the new regulation requiring between 71,000 and 78.500 voters, and needed only minimal change. "The Boundary Commission's proposals make it harder for unionism to win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone and effectively make it a safe republican seat for eternity," he added.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP responded to requests for comment on the proposed changes. But former Alliance leader David Ford said that it was "impossible to please everyone".

"There is an inevitability of Belfast being reduced from four constituencies to three, as the size of the existing population doesn't warrant four seats," he said.

Mr Ford insisted that drawing up new boundaries shouldn't involve consideration of the likely electoral outcome: "Those arguing that it should are effectively promoting gerrymandering."

Mr Allister said that while reducing the number of constituencies here from 18 to 17 was logical, "the radical reshaping of the province's political map suggested in these proposals is totally uncalled for".

He claimed that the commission had failed to keep its pledge to respect geographical features and local ties.

Mr Allister also hit out at East Londonderry's disappearance from the electoral map.

"It smacks of political meddling in a process which should remain free of political interference," he said.

"How else does one explain why Londonderry is the only county of Northern Ireland not to feature in the name of one of the new constituencies?"

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