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Gerrymandering in Northern Ireland

Introduction

This activity was devised by Dan Moorhouse. It’s a classic example of using physical movement and space to tackle a problem pupils have year after year – the concept of

Gerrymandering is very difficult to grasp but it does have a physical dimension in terms of the distribution of votes to constituencies or wards so that’s what Dan built on. Here’s his description of the activity.

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Support

A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity and the accompanying images (in a PowerPoint) can be downloaded:

This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

Objectives

The primary objectives of this exercise are

  • to provide students with an understanding of the way in which the gerrymander worked and
  • opportunities for them to put these examples into context.

Setting Up

This exercise needs a reasonably large area of open space. Moving tables to the side of a classroom may be adequate, alternatively making use of a larger room or playground could prove useful.

For the activity to work pupils need to be identifiable as groups. Split the group into thirds. Approximately one third of the class need to be distinguishable as being ‘different’ from the rest. This can be achieved used coloured tabards or badges.

Note: for anyone printing this in black and white, the oblong characters on the images are red.

The Activity

Explain to pupils that you are going to demonstrate to them how the Gerrymander worked. In order to do this they will first see how electoral boundaries are established and how they can be manipulated.

Split the group into six equal sized groups. Using tabards or badges identify each pupil as being part of a group within society. In order to replicate the divisions between Nationalists and Loyalists in this exercise, 2 of the groups should be labelled as a minority. Example:

Explain to pupils that they represent three electoral wards. Each ward will elect an equal number of councillors. Using a ball of string or wool, move around each group leaving a trail to act as a boundary. Example:

Tell the class that each of them has a vote and they have a choice of Red or Blue.

Ask each group

  • Which group will gain most representation in the council?
  • Are you being treated fairly?
  • Is there anything you would want to change?

Summarise from answers - electoral boundaries created in this way would lead to election results based on the proportion of Blue and Red supporters. (ie, 2/3 blue, 1/3 Red).

Now ask each group to elect one representative. Ask that student which colour they will choose to represent in council. Which colour group’s needs are most important to them?

Explain to the class that in reality people do not always live in such clearly defined areas as people move around based on their employment, earnings and other commitments. In order to demonstrate how this would affect the system ask 3 of the ‘Red/oblong’ pupils to move home. Example:

Ask each group

  • Are happy with the location of the constituency boundary.
  • Why are they happy / unhappy?
  • Are they equally represented?

Ask each group to elect one representative. Ask that student which colour they will choose to represent in council. Which colour group’s needs are most important to them?

Remove the original boundary marker and replace it with a new one based on the location of the people. Explain that as the population moves, the electoral boundary needs to be adjusted to ensure that each constituency is equal. Example:

Ask each group:

  • Is the new boundary fair?
  • Is there anything that anyone in the group feels unhappy about?
  • What would the results of an election be? Are these any different to the first example?

Now tell the class that you are going to change the boundaries one last time. This will be done in order to make sure that the council can have 20 elected officers from the 3 areas. Ask the class to suggest ways in which this can be done fairly.

Tell the class that you have decided where the boundaries should lie based on population, geography and political concerns. Remove the constituency markers that have previously been placed and move around the room laying out a new border that represents the Gerrymander (see below).

The diagram below illustrates the proportion of each group that need to be within each ward in order for this to be done reasonably accurately. Example:

Ask each group:

  • How many of the 20 councillors do you think your area should elect?
  • Is the new boundary fair?
  • Is there anything that anyone in the group feels unhappy about?

Explain to the class that the boundaries that you have assigned roughly replicate those that existed in Londonderry in the early 1960’s. Give each of the wards its name (see table below) then tell them how many seats they held in the council .

Ward

Name

Council seats

A

Bogside (South Ward)

8

B

North Ward

8

C

Waterside Ward

4

 

Ask each group:

  • Are you happy with the number of councillors you can elect?
  • Which group will win the elections in your ward?

Ask each group to elect one representative. Ask that student which colour they will choose to represent in council. Which colour group’s needs are most important to them?

Ask the class to consider the answers they have just given. Do they notice anything peculiar about the likely outcome of an election?

Explain to the class that the colours / tabards they have been given represent an approximate number of Catholics or Protestants who lived in Londonderry at the time. In the examples, the Red oblongs represent the Protestants and the Blue dots represent the Catholics. Provide each group with information about the number of voters in each ward (see table below) and the mix of Catholics and Protestants in each.

Ward

Voters

Catholics

Protestants

Councillors

South Ward

11185

10047

1138

8 Nationalists

North Ward

6476

2530

3946

8 Unionists

Waterside Ward

5549

1852

3697

4 Unionists

 

Ask each of the groups:

  • Are you treated fairly?
  • Who will benefit from this system?

Ask the elected representative of each group:

  • Whose rights will you defend?
  • Which groups do you want to benefit the most from investment?
  • Where do you think council services need to be improved the most?

Explain to the class that in Londonderry at the time of gerrymandering there were 23210 voters electing 20 councillors. Of the electorate 14429 were Catholic (62.2%), the remaining 8781 (37.8%) were Protestant. (Source: The Struggle for Peace in Northern Ireland, by Ben Walsh.)

The Gerrymander allowed the minority to hold a majority in the local council. The inequality of this system was one of the major reasons for the development of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960’s.

Reflections

  1. How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back!)
  2. How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the possibilities for different interpretations?
  3. Did this technique make a long-term impact on knowledge and understanding?

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Feedback

Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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This Page

Introduction

Support

Objectives

Setting Up

The Activity

Reflections

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