Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

SDLP chief Alasdair McDonnell relishes coalition row that could save his seat

Alasdair McDonnell

An MP whose seat looks set to be saved after a bust-up in the coalition Government has said that he hopes that plans to redraw constituency boundaries will now be abandoned.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell described the scuppered plan to dump 50 MPs — including two from Northern Ireland — as “a bureaucratic numbers game initiated by the Tories for purely party political advantage”.

The row that has erupted between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives over reform of the House of Lords looks set to derail plans to cut the number of MPs and Assembly Members in Northern Ireland.

Under an agreement between the Tories and Lib Dem coalition partners, the number of Westminster seats was to be slashed from 650 to 600.

Fewer MPs meant cutting the number of Westminster constituencies in Northern Ireland from 18 to 16. As a knock-on effect, the Executive was expected to cut the number of MLAs from 108 to 96 at the next election.

In return for supporting the changes to the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats expected Tory backing for reform of the Lords. But on Monday Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he was dropping the Lords Reform Bill after Prime Minister David Cameron informed him that an “insufficient number” of Tory MPs were prepared to support the changes.

The Lib Dems have now hit back by withdrawing support for new constituency boundaries. “The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken,” said Mr Clegg.

Here, the two MPs who gain from the collapse of the deal are Gregory Campbell of the DUP and SDLP leader Mr McDonnell.

Mr Campbell’s East Londonderry constituency would have disappeared under the original plan, while Dr McDonnell’s South Belfast seat would have been absorbed into South-West Belfast. It would have meant, he conceded last year, “that my seat is gone”.

“This boundary review was more about a bureaucratic numbers game initiated by the Tories for purely party political advantage than about ensuring the best representation for the people of Northern Ireland,” the SDLP leader said.

“The proposed boundary changes — such as those to lob Ballymena into Larne and Coleraine into North Antrim, and a plan to reduce Belfast to three seats — give absolutely no consideration to local relationships, well-established local identities and sense of community belonging. They were rightly opposed by local people and we welcome their postponement, and hopefully ultimate abandonment,” he added.

Both men are MLAs as well as MPs and, under the new plans to end double-jobbing, must now decide whether to stay in Stormont or Westminster.

Alliance’s Naomi Long, who took the East Belfast Westminster seat from the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson at the last election, would have been strengthened by the boundary changes announced last September.

At the time, Mr Robinson described them as a “gerrymander” and, although he wanted a smaller Assembly, was strongly critical of the precise proposals. He estimated that unionists would have lost nine out of the 12 seats to be cut — five DUP seats, two UUP, independent unionist David McClarty and TUV leader Jim Allister.

Lord Empey of the UUP warned that Mr Clegg’s move “will have immediate implications for Northern Ireland. If the boundary changes don't go ahead, then the size of the Assembly will remain unchanged unless other measures are taken before the next Stormont elections in either 2015 or 2016”.

Background

Cutting the number of MPs and MLAs in Northern Ireland were both popular measures with the public.

While cuts to the number of MPs is a coalition decision, the size of the Assembly, which is proportionately over twice as large as either Scotland or Wales, is decided by the Executive.

So far, local politicians have been unable to agree. They have been deeply divided on proposals to redraw constituencies to implement the proposed reductions. This makes agreement unlikely before the next election.

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