Unionists fearful that NI electoral boundary changes may boost republican seats
Unionists have slammed proposals to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland, with the DUP calling suggested changes in Belfast "simply wrong".
The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland has published responses from political parties to its proposals to reduce the number of seats here from 18 to 17. It is part of a UK-wide shake-up to reduce House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600.
If the proposals are approved Belfast will lose a seat, with only East Belfast remaining largely intact.
The three North, South and West Belfast constituencies will be redrawn to form two new electoral areas - Belfast North West and Belfast South West.
Outside the city, eight constituencies will continue with minimal changes. But the names of five others disappear - Lagan Valley, North Antrim, West Tyrone, Mid-Ulster and East Londonderry.
Six new constituencies will be created - Dalriada, Glenshane, Tyrone North, Antrim West, Down West, and Upper Bann and Blackwater.
The changes are to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, ensuring they have between 71,000 and 78,500 electors.
The Commission doesn't take political considerations into account.
However, unionist parties have hit out at the proposals, amid fears the changes would see nationalist parties gain seats. Election prediction website Electoral Calculus predicted the changes would leave republicans with nine MPS to the DUP's seven, if this year's general election voting patterns were repeated.
The DUP claimed the proposals would have "far-reaching and negative political consequences for the constitutional stability in Northern Ireland."
DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen, in a statement to the Commission, said: "The proposal to reduce Belfast to three constituencies is simply wrong and the commission's decision to do so has resulted in unacceptable boundaries throughout Northern Ireland. The provisional proposals make no proper recognition of the urban reality of Belfast in 2016."
She added: "The Commission has chosen the route that will create the greatest ramifications both in Belfast and across Northern Ireland."
Lord Empey, chairman of UUP, told the Commission the changes were "unnecessarily drastic and in excess of what is required".
He added: "Given that you are proposing to reduce Belfast to three constituencies, one would have expected the knock-on effects on other seats to be minimal.
"The fact that a wholesale redrawing of nearly all remaining constituencies and the creation of six entirely new ones has emerged has shocked us."
A spokesman for TUV, writing on behalf of MLA Jim Allister, said the current suggestions "should be scrapped in their entirety" and that proposals made in 1994 should be revisited as a starting point for the re-drawing of the map.
Under the 1994 proposals, Northern Ireland would have 18 constituencies, with Belfast split into Belfast North, Belfast West, Belfast East and Castlereagh and Newtownards.
Sinn Fein did not comment on the plans, while the SDLP said: "The proposed reduction in representation would inevitably lead to a diminution in the standing and influence of Belfast as a major city and regional capital.
"We believe that this would sit at odds with the natural progression and development of cities and regions."
The Commission began its secondary consultation stage, which will last for four weeks, on Tuesday. The Commission aims to report to Parliament with its final recommendations in September 2018.