Northern Ireland

Why Commons reform plan could mean fewer NI MPs

Northern Ireland could lose two or three MPs if plans to reform the House of Commons go ahead. The move could also result in the number of MLAs being reduced. BBC NI's political reporter Stephen Walker investigates...

Image caption The plan is to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster from 650 to 600

There is an old saying that nothing concentrates the mind like a deadline.

For our local politicians, 2013 might just be in their thoughts at the moment.

It will be the year when some of them may have to start thinking about a different career.

By that time the Coalition government hopes boundary changes will be approved which will ultimately mean fewer MPs and a reduction of MLAs at Stormont.

The plan is to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster from 650 to 600.

The government wants each constituency to be roughly the same size and has suggested that each seat should have an electorate of around 75,000 people.

Only two seats in Northern Ireland are above this figure.

They are Upper Bann currently held by the DUP's David Simpson and Newry and Armagh which is represented by Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein.

The seats with the lowest numbers are East Belfast and West Belfast which both have electorates of 60,000.

South Belfast, East Antrim, North Down and Strangford have 61,000 voters.

In West Tyrone, the electorate sits at 62,000 with 2,000 more in East Londonderry.

Political Analyst Nicholas Whyte believes the changes could lead to Northern Ireland being reduced from 18 MPs to 15.

He thinks Belfast, which currently has four MPs, could go down to three and there could be a seat lost west of the Bann and possibly another lost in County Down.

However, some politicians particularly those who represent Belfast seats are urging a degree of caution.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds says the DUP are in favour of political reform but warns that merging some constituencies and creating bigger seats may not be the right approach. He says Northern Ireland used to have 12 seats which were "very big".

The DUP deputy leader told the BBC: "People don't like the idea of massive constituencies".

He added that seats can be spread out over large rural and urban areas which are "not in the interests of constituents or the MP".

Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP MP for South Belfast believes it would be mistake to cut the number of seats in Belfast.

He said that "for 150 years we have had four constituencies".

He added that "as a local capital we should keep it to four constituencies".

Image caption The reduction of Westminster seats would have a knock on effect at Stormont

The reduction of Westminster seats would have a knock on effect at Stormont since MLAS are elected using the same boundaries.

So if three Westminster seats were scrapped that would result in the same number of Stormont constituencies going as well.

At Stormont, six assembly members represent each seat so a cut of three could reduce the number of MLAS from 108 to 90.

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly who represents North Belfast is relaxed about reducing the number of MLAs.

He said: "I don't think there is any big difference between 90 and 108 and I have no difficulty looking at this."

He said a cut in the number of parliamentary seats would make little impact.

Mr Kelly said: "Three less MPs won't make a big difference to Westminster."

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey told the BBC he would welcome plans to bring the number of MLAs down.

He said: "Our representation is much higher than the rest of the devolved administrations. Bringing the numbers down to 90 would be good."

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry says the debate about Westminster reforms may kick start the debate about how many MLAs should represent each constituency.

The North Down MLA told the BBC that "leaner government will help our economy" and he wondered if a reduction to five MLAs per seat should be considered.

He, however, cautioned that five should be a minimum number and going to four per seat could cause problems.

This debate is now underway and the government are in a hurry because they want the reforms agreed by 2013 in time for the next General Election which is expected in 2015.

The new boundaries won't be in place in time for next years Assembly elections, but many of our MLAs know change is in the air.