The High Court has found that plans to redraw Northern Ireland’s constituencies were “unfair” and failed to fully consider all consultation responses.
The verdict comes after a Belfast man brought a judicial review to challenge the Commission’s proposals following the closure of consultation.
Justice McCloskey identified a legal flaw in the Boundary Commission for NI’s final recommendations, stating: “Its decision making process was vitiated by procedural unfairness, as the common law right of all consultees to have their views considered fully and conscientiously and on the basis on a level playing field was frustrated.”
The publication of the Boundary Commission’s final proposals came after a five-year consultation process, which has seen nearly 10,000 petition signatures and letters received by the body.
Within days of his victory in the 2015 general election, David Cameron’s Tory Party moved to ensure that a UK-wide constituency boundary review became a priority. In 2016, the review was tasked with reducing the overall number of MPs from 650 to 600, with a one seat reduction in Northern Ireland.
Initial revisions proposed by the Boundary Commission were heavily criticised politically and the feedback led to an eventual revision of proposals.
The proposals, published in September 2018, will see the constituencies of Foyle and Fermanagh and South Tyrone relatively unchanged. Four new constituencies will be created: Causeway, Mid Antrim, Mid Down and Sperrin. Eleven will retain their original names, yet their boundaries will be altered: East Antrim, Belfast, Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, South Antrim, North Down, Upper Bann and South Down. Previous proposals to introduce Glenshane and Dalriada constituencies have been abandoned.
Five constituencies will be removed from the boundary map due to a lack of replacement in the final proposals. The plan would see North Antrim, Lagan Valley, Strangford, East Londonderry and West Tyrone disappear, in what would represent a shift from the former proposals which suggested reducing Belfast to three constituencies.
The changes to Northern Ireland’s electoral boundaries aim to see variations in the number of people living in each constituency significantly reduced, resulting in new sections closer in size and in terms of constituents represented. Whilst East Antrim is presently the smallest constituency with 59,658 voters, new proposals would see Upper Bann become the smallest constituency with 69,795 votes. Similarly, the largest current constituency of Upper Bann (80,218 voters) would change, resulting in Mid Down becoming the largest constituency (77,767).
The legal challenge was centred on legislation which allows the Commission to deviate from a 5 per cent range of the UK electoral quota when considering constituency size.
The complainant argued that the Commission had shifted away from its provisional recommendations by relying on the rule without a proper legal basis and had suddenly changed direction in a radical way.
While lawyers for the Commission argued that the changes were in response to “a healthy and procedurally correct consultation process”, Justice McCloskey held that the Commission had fettered its discretion by failing to fully consider consultation responses received in the final stage of the elaborate statutory process it had followed.
A further hearing is to be heard to decide on final remedies and order in the case.