The situation in Northern Ireland has always caused difficulty for the British Government, but with the less-that-ideal Conservatives-DUP alliance, could what appears to be a tactical manipulation of Northern Irish political boundaries be a step too far?

Gerrymandering in Northern Ireland?

picture from Belfast Telegraph

The Conservatives party were already disappointed not to win a majority in the 2017 general election, but since then there has been huge controversy surrounding the Conservatives’ alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party after a map detailing proposed new constituency boundaries for Northern Ireland was obtained by the Press Association. The new boundaries shown on the map, which hasn’t been confirmed as a final version, dramatically favour the DUP at the expense of Sinn Féin – a tactic known as gerrymandering. Surely this is not democratic?

The word democracy first emerged in the 5th century BC, created by the ancient Greeks to describe the system of government that emerged in multiple city states in Greece, most notably Athens. Not everybody knows of the roots of this word; the etymology of the word is not important. The concept represented by the word democracy, however, is universally understood, and people strive for it, people wish for it, and in the past, people have died to protect it for all of us today fortunate enough to possess it. This democratic process of choosing our leaders, along with right to free speech and right to due process, is the cornerstone of western civilisation. With democracy, we can all choose our leader and our representatives, and everyone has an equal say in choosing them. Sometimes, however, like in all systems, it doesn’t always work perfectly. In the case we’re going to talk about, it’s not that democracy is malfunctioning; it’s that democracy in this country is being sabotaged.

We’d like to think that we have power over our MPs. We elect them, and dismiss them at will. If what they and their party stand for pleases us, we elect or re-elect them, and if not we can simply elect someone else. By this mechanism the voting public has ultimate power over the representative; the representative can be held accountable to their actions, as we choose them. gerrymandering, however, is how the politician can shift the balance of power towards them, and instead of the voters choosing the politician, the politician chooses the voters. So how does gerrymandering work?

There are really two main Gerrymandering techniques, which are Cracking and Packing. Cracking is done by drawing districts in such a way to spread voters of one affiliation so thin that there is no one district in which they may win. Packing is to draw districts in order to bunch voters of the opposing affiliation into as few districts as possible, so their party can win overwhelming majorities in that district, but elect fewer representatives from their party overall than their voter numbers should; with packing, it is said that there are a lot of wasted votes. Often, the two techniques are used together to maximise their effect. But why is our government being accused of using these dodgy tactics?

Following the 2017 general election, the Conservatives released details of the new constituency boundaries that would exist in Northern Ireland after the Conservatives reduced the number of seats had been reduced from 18 to 17 (as part of the overall plan to reduce the number of UK seats from 650 to 600). The initial plans stated that the DUP would lose three seats and Sinn Féin would gain two, becoming Northern Ireland’s biggest party. Sinn Féin would have nine MPs, and the DUP just seven.

However, with the plans having been roundly criticised by the DUP in October 2017, the party called for “new and revised” boundary proposals. It seems that the Conservatives made changes to their plan, which were then leaked by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland during a website test. The Belfast Telegraph reported that “the changes now on the table would see the DUP still the biggest party at Westminster with 10 seats to Sinn Féin’s seven.” Sinn Féin responded to this by saying that any move by Conservatives to row back on proposed boundary changes would amount to gerrymandering to placate the DUP. Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy warned that if the map was accurate it was “further evidence of the British Government’s ongoing refusal to act in an impartial manner as they are obliged to under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.”

This is a difficult position for the government: the situation in Northern Ireland is fragile. Do they stick to their original plans at the expense of the DUP, reduced their political power? Or do they go with the changed plans, which mean that the number of seats for the DUP and Sinn Féin remain as they were before (10 and 7 respectively)? There doesn’t seem to be a right answer, but what they do know is that with the Conservative-DUP deal already being said to threaten peace in Ireland, any attempt to alter Northern Ireland’s political boundaries for short-term political gain could have devastating, long-term repercussions.

By Lucy Higginbotham