Parties silent over major plans to decrease Westminster seats

MOST political parties yesterday stayed silent on the most dramatic changes to Northern Ireland’s Westminster electoral boundaries for more than two decades as they pored over the implications of them.

The changes – which are not yet confirmed – would likely see the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell and DUP’s Gregory Campbell lose their seats as their constituencies, South Belfast and East Londonderry respectively, are axed.

Overall, Northern Ireland would lose two MPs, leaving the province with 16 members in a smaller House of Commons.

However, the changes –which are now being published for public consultation and are due to come into force in 2015 – will not happen if reported unhappiness within the Liberal Democrats about the impact on their MPs leads to the Conservatives shelving the plan.

While West Tyrone will also be removed, the current Sinn Fein seat there should not be under threat with the boundaries of the ‘Mid Tyrone’ seat which replaces it.

However, the bulk of the East Londonderry seat will disappear into a new ‘Glenshane’ constituency which will exclude the largely unionist town of Coleraine but incorporate about half of Martin McGuinness’s current Mid Ulster constituency, the other half of which will go to ‘Mid Tyrone’.

North Antrim, for decades the home of the Paisleys, will lose its centre, Ballymena, which will go into a newly-created ‘Mid Antrim’ seat, formed from part of the current East Antrim and North Antrim constituencies.

The changes are also significant for the assembly as Westminster boundaries are also used for Stormont elections, meaning that if two constituencies are removed there will be 12 fewer MLAs at Stormont.

Yesterday Mr McDonnell, whose seat will be divided between East and West Belfast, said he was deeply unhappy at the proposals to cut the number of seats in Belfast from four to three, something he said reduced its “status and clout”.

However, East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long welcomed the changes and suggested that it could increase her chances of retaining the seat.

The DUP said it was examining the proposals and re-affirmed its support for a cut in the number of MLA seats.

It said the number of MLAs per constituency could be cut from six to five or even four.

Responding on behalf of the UUP, East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs said it was assessing the plans but had several concerns.

Sinn Fein also said it was considering the changes and said it would be “premature” to pass judgment on the draft proposals.

But TUV leader and North Antrim MLA Jim Allister denounced the proposals for his constituency as illogical.

He said: “Under these proposals not only is it unnaturally sliced across the middle, but even the Ballymena borough is mutilated, with some attached to an area extending to Coleraine and some to a constituency including Carrickfergus.”