Colm Gildernew on the history of gerrymander

An Phoblacht Gerrymandering – Boundary Commission Op-Ed 09.09.2018, Colm Gildernew.

“Gerrymandering; The act of altering political boundaries to give an unfair advantage to one political party or people” (Collins English Dictionary online 09.09.2018;

“Gerrymander; Manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favour one party or class”. (Oxford English Dictionaries online 09.09.2018

In 1812 one Elbridge Gerry, State Governor of Massachusetts is credited with the origin of the term ‘Gerrymander’ when he signed into law a redistricting plan designed to benefit his political party.  A cartoonist, observing the similarity of one of the ensuing districts to a mythological Salamander created the portmanteau word ‘Gerry-mander’ accompanied by a representation of the new electoral district (complete with wings and tail!) in the Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812.

The British government, no slow-learners in the art of electoral manipulation, would appear to have mastered the technique fairly comprehensively and in 1921 employed a classic gerrymander to partition six of Ireland’s most north-eastern counties into a new political entity.  This was designed to create a ‘Protestant / Unionist’ majority and, in keeping with all the best gerrymanders completely ignored historical, geographical and cultural realities in favour of its chosen beneficiaries.

In its turn the Unionist one party state created in the north-east of Ireland continued to adopt the technique to ensure domination of one community over the other.  This resulted in discrimination becoming embedded into the Northern state and led James Craig to boast “…that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.

Through the use of gerrymandering the Unionist party controlled areas which had clear Nationalist populations.   In 1964 the Campaign for Social Justice wrote…

The population in Dungannon is 53% Nationalist. By means of gerrymandering the Unionists have 14 seats on the Urban Council as against 7 for the Nationalists, in Derry…out of a Total Electorate of 30,000 people 10,500 Unionist electors secured 12 seats while 19,500 Nationalists secure 8 seats. (THE CAMPAIGN FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND, Dungannon, l9th February, 1965)

This important research, completed by the McCluskeys and others went on to outline how gerrymandering six county style was not merely geographic in scope, they also described how in the north; “…only a householder and his wife can vote. In addition limited companies are allotted six votes each. Catholics are denied houses and therefore lose voting strength”.

This situation led to an increasingly defiant reaction from northern nationalists. The civil rights campaign emerged from a series of actions demanding housing and voting rights.  The Unionist state reacted with violence and peaceful civil rights marchers were baton charged, shot at and driven from the streets.

It is little wonder then that nationalists and republicans have reacted so strongly to what many have described as a new gerrymander resulting from the recent Boundary Commission proposals.

We have called for a series of changes to improve the democratic structures here in the north including; extending voting rights to all those aged 16 and over, using census figures to compile electoral registers, a robust programme of engagement by election office staff in our schools and colleges and the devolution of boundary changes to the northern assembly.

It would appear to be no coincidence that as we approach a tipping point in the north in terms of Nationalist votes there are new obstacles being placed in the way of fair and equitable voting here. The Electoral Office have just announced the closure of a series of election offices across the north and last week Karen Bradley passed legislation to avoid the calling of an Assembly election.   

The Boundary Commission was established in 2016 with a remit to reduce the number of constituencies from 18 to 17 and to distribute the electorate in a fair and equitable way across the new constituencies.

They published proposals in 2017 which went some way to achieving that. However, these were radically revised in the face of DUP opposition and nobody can argue that the new plan represents fairness, given that it so blatantly advantages the DUP at the expense of the nationalist electorate.

The Boundary Commission deny that a deliberate gerrymander is taking place at the behest of the DUP but they have failed to explain or justify the changes which will have such a negative impact on democracy and which fly in the face of their own remit.

It is significant that there was a massive reaction from people across the north in relation to these proposals.  Many thousands of people engaged in the consultation process to object and to call for a return to the original proposals yet these appear to have been largely ignored.

The democratic franchise here was hard won.  Deep in the psyche of republicans and nationalists there is an understanding of the importance of maintaining and exercising the right to vote in a fair and equitable way.

Sinn Fein believe fundamentally in a rights based, democratic Republic.  We are currently experiencing an unacceptable blockade on a swathe of rights-based issues by the DUP, including Irish language, marriage equality, women’s health, and legacy rights.  

In addition, there are huge concerns arising from Brexit and the new Boundary Commission proposals as now published. These could have a chilling impact on rights and representation in the Six Counties.

Surely it is only right that those who will be impacted most by the seismic changes being played out at present should also have the right to have a say in their own future?

This is why Sinn Féin are seeking to extend voting rights to all our young citizens from the age of 16.  I have had the privilege to speak with many school groups from across Ireland since I became an MLA.

These schools have come from every corner, culture and creeds of the country.  I have never ceased to be impressed at the maturity, tolerance and wisdom that is apparent each time I engage with these young people.

Surely, in light of the major challenges and changes facing us all at this time it is now crucial to not only defend but also extend the right to vote and the right for everyone’s voice to be treated with equality and respect?

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