Changes to Belfast City Council boundaries are likely to make the City Hall nationalist-controlled, unionists say.
Under proposals being announced today, a bigger Belfast will take in the large nationalist estates of Poleglass and Twinbrook, along with mainly unionist areas in east Belfast.
The local government shake-up will see the number of seats on the council increase from the current 51 to 60 to accommodate the new areas.
The present breakdown of the council is 24 nationalists to 21 unionists, while Alliance holds the balance of power with six seats.
Now that could all change.
Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers said: “Overall, I firmly believe there will be little change, but there is no doubt it will become an overall nationalist controlled council.
“There will be strong challenges from unionists but I think it is inevitable that we will be nationalist controlled overall.” The PUP’s Dr John Kyle described some boundary decisions as illogical and curious.
“It will affect the demography of Belfast in terms of the total numbers of nationalist and unionist voters. But, of course, people don't always follow tribal politics,” he said.
However, he added: “We could see the balance shifted.”
Around 30,000 people are set to shift into Belfast’s political catchment under proposals for new council boundaries unveiled today.
People currently living in Lisburn and Castlereagh will become part of a bigger Belfast after the present 26 councils are merged into 11 new authorities.
An expanding city council area is set to include Dunmurry, Poleglass and Twinbrook — which currently form part of Lisburn.
Gilnahirk and Tullycarnet, at present within Castlereagh, will also be part of the new Belfast council area.
It is the largest single change in the recommendations from District Electoral Areas Commissioner Richard MacKenzie in his report.
Eight weeks have now been set aside for consultations on the proposals, with the reduction of councils having a knock-on effect of cutting local wards from 582 to 462. Public inquiries into the plans will have to be held if any of the current councils demand it — and provision for up to 11 inquiries has been made.
A petition signed by at least 100 people could also lead to an inquiry. If they arise, they are to be held in August and September to allow Mr MacKenzie to make final recommendations to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers by the end of December.
Mrs Villiers has to appoint a 12-strong panel which would oversee the inquiries. She must also bring in legislation in Westminster for the date for elections to the 11 new councils, probably next May.
The biggest changes include the new Causeway Coast and Glens council, made up of Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady and Moyle. It drops from 13 to seven district electoral areas.
The council comprising Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon falls from 11 to seven electoral areas.
Mid & East Antrim — made up from the present Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne authorities — and Mid-Ulster (consisting of Cookstown, Dungannon and South Tyrone, and Magherafelt) will drop from 10 to seven.
Belfast will increase from nine to 10 district electoral areas due to its boundary being extended, but Fermanagh and Omagh remain virtually unchanged.
“This is the first stage in the process to establish electoral areas for the new local government district councils,” Mr MacKenzie said.
“My proposals represent a considerable change from the current pattern in some places. However, in other areas there is a broad similarity with the existing pattern,” he added.
Written representations are being invited by the deadline of June 27 in what Mr MacKenzie admitted was a tight timetable.
Q So what are District Electoral Areas (DEAs) when they are at home?
A They are the ‘constituencies’ of the new councils and are made up of wards — the numbers of which have been reduced.
Q Why are wards being cut?
A Because the number of councils is being slashed from the current 26 councils to 11, the wards go down too — from 582 to 462.
Q What does that mean for politics?
A 120 fewer councillors for a start — plus the Executive has set aside more than £3m to finance ‘golden handshake’ packages.
Q What else is changing?
A Many old names, like Victoria in Belfast, will disappear.
Q How were boundaries decided?
A By an independent commissioner, Richard MacKenzie.
Castlereagh Council’s current HQ and the nearby Forestside shopping centre could have ended up in Belfast if boundary commissioners had got their way.
But the Executive overturned the proposal, meaning the new Lisburn & Castlereagh Council will get both the grand offices and the £4m-plus in annual rates from Forestside.
Lisburn ratepayers have already been told it will save them from an increase in their bills.
But Stormont ministers have been accused of a “smash and grab raid” over the shake-up.
Belfast councillor Pat McCarthy insisted the decision “makes no sense whatsoever”.
“What has Forestside to do with Lisburn city? It is 15 miles to Lisburn from Forestside, which is just four miles from the centre of Belfast,” the SDLP Laganbank representative argued.
“The natural boundary here is the dual carriageway just on the far side from Forestside but instead we have this usual carve-up which is nothing more than a smash and grab raid.”
But DUP MLA Paul Givan said: “The original proposal would have stripped the new council of millions of pounds in rates income resulting in a massive increase in rates for the new council to pay for the important services provided by local government.
“Lisburn has the third lowest rates bill in Northern Ireland, but this was in jeopardy as a result of the Boundary Commission.”
District electoral areas commissioner Richard MacKenzie said yesterday the controversy over Dunmurry becoming part of a bigger Belfast, rather than remaining in Lisburn, appeared to have gone away.
When he was Environment Minister, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, who was also at the time a Lisburn councillor, insisted some 60,000 residents of Dunmurry wanted to remain part of Lisburn rather than Belfast.
One potential area for controversy, however, is the renaming of the old Victoria ward in east Belfast as the Titanic ward.
Belfast Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said: “I do have reservations about this. The name Victoria has been in existence for a very long time. But I would want to have talks within the party before deciding on anything we can do.”