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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 May, 2003, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Boundary review's 'ripple effect'

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The announcement that the Boundary Commission is to examine whether Northern Ireland should retain all 18 of its parliamentary seats has focussed attention on the future of Belfast's four constituencies.

The flow of population out of Belfast to its surrounding areas has left all the inner city constituencies well below average size.

Given that the Boundary Commission is tasked to consider cutting the number of Northern Ireland constituencies to what's believed to be the optimum number of 17, there's considerable speculation that the four Belfast constituencies might have to be cut to three.

South Belfast, which is the smallest, would appear the likeliest constituency to face the chop, perhaps getting subsumed within larger East and West Belfast seats.

The prospect of having Gerry Adams as their local MP might send shock waves through some of the residents of the leafy streets off Belfast's Malone Road.

Conveniently ignoring what historical detail didn't suit the case I drew up a passionate defence of the geographical and historical integrity of South Down
Eamon Delaney

But redrawing the boundaries could have an impact further afield.

The alternative to cutting the number of Belfast constituencies would be to expand the current ones so they take in more of the city's urban sprawl.

However, if the Commission follows this route they will inevitably create a ripple effect elsewhere.

The last Boundary Commission's provisional recommendations in 1994 included creating a new seat in the west of the province called Blackwater and abolishing Eddie McGrady's safe SDLP seat of South Down.

Setting the boundaries is meant to be all about defining natural areas of administration rather than gerrymandering borders to defend the interests of one party or another.

But when a safe seat is under threat, it would be naive to believe that the politicians involved would not defend their interests with every weapon at their disposal.

Vested interest

Indeed in his memoirs, published in 2001, the former Irish civil servant Eamon Delaney claimed he had been tasked to prepare the bare bones of the case on the SDLP's behalf.

"Conveniently ignoring what historical detail didn't suit the case", Delaney wrote," I drew up a passionate defence of the geographical and historical integrity of South Down."

More of the same can be expected if the new commission challenges any vested interest.

But what's also of interest is the overlap between the Westminster borders and those related to other institutions.

The constituencies provide the basis for the six member assembly seats - cutting one could prove a convenient means of reducing the number of assembly members, given that the current total of 108 has been much derided as an example of over-government.

Besides the assembly, there's the district councils to consider.

A 14-person team has started work on the review of public administration which is meant to cut the layers of bureaucracy, perhaps by slashing the number of councils, which currently stands at 26.

There are currently 18 MPs from Northern Ireland sitting in Parliament

If the review took its cue from the Westminster Boundary Commission it could streamline the administrative areas.

Dove-tailing Belfast City Council with the Belfast constituencies and then creating a separate council to cover each of the remaining seats would give a grand total of 15 councils.

That would avoid the current problem of some voters having their local services provided by one district council, whilst being represented by MPs and assembly members drawn from a completely different area.

However there is a difficulty. The deadlock in the political process has brought the consultation on the review, which was meant to be overseen by the defunct power sharing executive, to a crashing halt.

Some politicians, like the Alliance Party's Stephen Farry, argue that pressing ahead with the Westminster Boundary Commission before examining the future of local councils and their wards is a case of putting the cart before the horse which could lead to an electoral debacle.

However, the Boundary Commission hopes it will have enough leeway to harmonise its efforts with any local government review which does take place.

If it sits on its hands until a breakthrough in the peace process re-energises the Review of Public Administration, the commission could be waiting a long time.

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