Northern Ireland parties didn’t influence new boundaries, says commission
The Boundary Commission has said its proposed changes to Northern Ireland's electoral map were made without political interference after Sinn Fein lambasted the plan as "gerrymandering to placate the DUP".
Commissioners insist they were impartial after confirming significant alterations to their original blueprint for redrawing constituency boundaries.
Previous proposals that would have seen Belfast drop from four seats to three, with the DUP likely losing a seat to Sinn Fein, have been scrapped.
Outside the city, a raft of new constituencies had appeared - North Tyrone, Glenshane, Dalriada, West Antrim, Upper Bann and Blackwater and West Down - by merging parts of existing constituencies. The DUP had opposed this original plan published in 2016, claiming it would undermine political stability.
But a revised electoral map published today sees the initially proposed constituencies gone, with several other new ones now suggested.
The Commission rejected any suggestion of bias.
"The structure of the Commission and its remit is strictly prescribed by statute," a spokesman said. "This provides safeguards to ensure the process of redistricting is protected from political influence or interference."
Northern Ireland is set to lose one MP, down from 18 to 17, as part of Government plans to cut the number of seats across the UK from 650 to 600. The latest proposals would likely see 10 DUP MPs and seven Sinn Fein MPs returned.
The current blueprint sees the creation of a Causeway constituency on the north coast, merging part of East Londonderry with part of North Antrim and a small section of East Antrim.
The remainder of North Antrim is renamed Mid Antrim and takes in parts of East Antrim and South Antrim. Lagan Valley disappears with parts going to South Antrim and Mid Down. Fermanagh and South Tyrone now remains largely unchanged.
The redrawn map leaves five constituencies - West Tyrone, Upper Bann, East Belfast, South Belfast and Mid Antrim - with less than the minimum 71,031 voters recommended under UK-wide guidelines. However commissioners here have discretion if there is a compelling reason behind their decision.
The Alliance Party argued for a three-seat Belfast, with the DUP and SDLP supporting a four-seater. But the Commission said: "The strength of evidence provided, alongside a general consensus to retain closer alignment to existing constituencies, has persuaded us to revise our provisional proposals to include a four-seat Belfast.
"This has enabled us to minimise disruption to many of the existing constituencies beyond the city. This is an important consideration and a positive response to the evidence submitted."
An eight-week public consultation on the proposals opens today. The Commission will forward its final draft to Secretary of State Karen Bradley in September. However, the changes may never happen with Labour opposing a reduction in MP numbers and Tory backbenchers also unhappy.