Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, September 15, 2011

UK Redistricting: How it Will Affect Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use the formal title of the entity that most people refer to simply as the UK or Britain (not so great any more), is redistricting in a bid to make its parliamentary representation more uniform. Boundaries will be redrawn to organize about 72,000 eligible voters in each constituency and reduce the total number of seats from about 600 to 550. As its share in the loss Northern Ireland is expected to part with only two of its present eighteen seats. Until the 1980s the province had only a dozen seats, then add one and then another five. Here is a detailed article on the proposal by Liam Clarke of the Belfast Telegraph.

What will be the effects of this on politics in Northern Ireland? As I see it there will be two main effects. First, the two seats being sacrificed are in western Ulster--west of the Bann River that is mainly controlled by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists (DUP)--and South Belfast. The South Belfast seat is being divided between West Belfast--a longtime Sinn Fein fiefdom--and East Belfast--presently held by Alliance, but traditionally held by the DUP. The SDLP, already in trouble because of its outdated electoral machinery and lack of a clear message, is about to lose one of its three remaining Westminster seats. In the past Belfast, as the province's capital and main city, has had four parliamentary districts: North, West, South, and East. South is now being split between West and East; West will lose its main loyalist area (the Shankill) to North. I haven't yet seen any maps showing the redivision of districts in the west of the province, but the net effect will be that either the DUP or Sinn Fein will lose one of its seats. Both can afford to take the hit. None of the three smaller traditional parties (UUP, SDLP, Alliance) can afford to take a hit. The real contests in the province take place within its sectarian divisions: Sinn Fein versus the SDLP among the nationalists, and the DUP versus the UUP among the unionists. The DUP has all but won its battle against the UUP. The SDLP is still hanging on but this will make the job of the new leader that much more difficult.

The second main effect is to reduce the size of government in the province down to a more appropriate size. For the Assembly each parliamentary district elects six representatives--thus the total size of the Assembly will be reduced from 108 to 96. If the number elected in each district were to be reduced further to only five the Assembly would end up with 80. This is about the size of the Assembly in the 1970s and 1980s. A unitary state like the UK does not need such an elaborate provincial legislature for its smallest province.  Northern Ireland, after all, consists of only six counties (which accounts for the old republican name for the province--the Six Counties). The Assembly has traditionally handled the three b's: bins, bogs, and burials. That is to say it has handled garbage collection, sewage, and burials as well as policing since 2007. It has a number of other administrative functions, but the most important ministries such as defense, foreign affairs, and the treasury are handled at the national level in London. Most Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen whether nationalist or unionist think that far too much is already spent on local and provincial government. The further reduction to 80 in the Assembly would probably be very popular.

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