15 January 2004 Edition

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No boundaries on the status quo

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

Yes, the 26-County Constituency Commission was independent. Yes, their report has in a bland numerical way assured nominal equality of representation, but was it fair? Was it the right way to underpin democracy in the 26 Counties? This week, ROBBIE SMYTH looks at the new constituency commission report and asks if government constraints meant a stifling of any radical positive redrawing of constituency boundaries.

Prospective and sitting TDs were dusting off their local area maps last weekend as they pondered the recommendations of the latest constituency commission which, if adopted will alter the boundaries of 18 existing constituencies while also creating three new ones in Meath, Sligo, Leitrim, Longford and Westmeath.

For Sinn Féin, the splitting of Meath into two three-seat constituencies does present an added challenge, as does the splitting of Sligo Leitrim into a new three seat constituency of Sligo-North Leitrim with South Leitrim now becoming part of a three-seat constituency with Roscommon. (See the accompanying box for an overview of the changes).

For some sitting Fianna Fáil TDs, such as Donnie Cassidy and John Ellis, the proposed boundary changes effectively split their local voter support bases.

In Dublin North Central, which now becomes a three-seater, Fine Gael's Richard Bruton and independent TD Finian McGrath will find the going difficult while whatever thoughts Labour's Derek McDowell had of a quick return to the Dáil in this constituency are well scuppered.

SMALL PARTIES DISCRIMINATION

So, who if anybody were the winners in this boundary commission process? While some Fianna Fáil TDs might be feeling the harsh wind of boundary changes the greater 'good' is that the larger parties are the only beneficiaries of this constituency commission report.

For the third consecutive commission, the number of five-seat constituencies, which are much more likely to elect smaller parties and independents, has been cut, while the number of three-seat constituencies grows steadily.

An example of the power of four- and five-seat constituencies is shown by the fact that of the five Sinn Féin TDs, only one comes from a three-seat constituency. Similarly, only one of the six Green TDs was elected out of three-seat constituency. The PDs elected eight TDs in 2002. Only party leader Mary Harney was elected out of three-seat constituency.

Most worrying about the growth of three-seat constituencies is that it seems to be the favoured option to dealing with population growth and change. The previous commission created four three-seat constituencies in Dublin, while the commission prior to that divided Kildare in two. This time, it is Meath that has been partitioned.

One reason is that the commission is constrained by legislative act to have constituency sizes between three and five seats. Therefore, Meath could not have made the logical jump to being a six-seater constituency. The Commission are also asked to keep within existing county boundaries, so that again explains why Meath was divided.

RESTRICTIVE CRITERIA

It is true that we have an independent constituency commission, but it is bound by quite restrictive criteria, which opens the question as to why the coalition don't allow the commission set their own criteria, within the existing constitutional provisions? The simple answer is that then the existing electoral status quo could be under threat.

There is also the issue that inequality in how constituencies affect representation only begins with constituency size. There is an underlying lack of proportionality in the results that the current election system is producing.

In the 2002 election, Fianna Fáil polled 37.13% of first preferences in Dublin, winning 21 seats. A proportional result would require Fianna Fáil winning just under 49% of first preferences to justify holding 21 seats in the capital.

There are other anomalies, such as the Greens winning five seats in the city, with 8.04% of the vote, compared to Sinn Fein's two seats with 8.91% of the vote. The Progressive Democrats took four seats in Dublin with just over 7% of the vote.

The changes announced by this boundary commission offer no redress to these anomalies and it seems that we are looking forward to another election with a twisted, distorted voting system.

Is PRSTV the best system?

The voting system of Proportional Representation with a Single Transferable Vote (PRSTV) is unique to Ireland and Malta. The system was developed in the 19th Century in Denmark and England.

In Ireland, using a PR method with multi-seat constituencies was seen as a positive way to accommodate minorities in Home Rule Ireland. Arthur Griffith was one of the founding members of the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland.

The British used PRSTV for the 1920 local elections in Ireland and the subsequent elections to the Stormont and Dublin assemblies were done using PRSTV. The Unionist Party abolished PRSTV for local elections in 1923 and for Stormont in 1929.

In Six-County local elections, widescale manipulation of boundaries and the introduction of a first past the post system denied nationalists from any aspiration to local power. It also helped keep smaller unionist parties from getting any form of representation.

In the 26 Counties, PRSTV was used continually in elections and deValera included it in his 1937 Constitution, even though twice after, in 1959 and 1968, Fianna Fáil attempted to replace PRSTV with a less proportional system. In both referenda, the proposal was rejected.

Irish voters have embraced the system and used it in ways for which it was never designed. The most striking example of this is in how votes are transferred. In rural areas this is more pronounced, with voters often transferring across parties to candidates from the same local district.

The local representative is often seen as being more important than the party that elected them. Many of the PDs were former Fianna Fáil members. Current Environment Minister Martin Cullen was once in the PDs and many independents, such as Jackie Healy Rae, are in fact the product of disgruntled local Fianna Fáil organisations bucking the central leadership. Party affiliation was actually only included on ballots sheets in 1965.

What is most striking in the difference between the PR system we started off with in 1920 and today is the contraction in constituency size. In the 1920s, there were nine- and seven-seat constituencies. However, Fianna Fáil, with little opposition from Fine Gael and Labour, eroded the constituency size to the current five, four and three seats. By the time they allowed independent constituency commissions in 1977, the original system had already been distorted beyond measure, giving us what we have today — a system that blocks change and helps the larger parties.

If we were to go back to basics. Meath would now be a six-seat constituency, while Kildare would have seven. Dublin West and Mid West could be merged into a seven-seat constituency. You have to ask why this isn't happening and who is benefiting from the current flawed system.

Boundary Commission Recommendations summary

Number of constituencies increases from 42 to 43

• Dublin Mid-West and Kildare North move from three to four seaters

• Cork North Central and Dublin North Central move from four to three seats

New Constituencies

• Sligo-Leitrim North (3 seats)

• Leitrim South-Roscommon (3 seats)

• Longford-Westmeath (4 seats)

• Meath West (3 seats)

• Meath East (3 seats)

Constituency Size

• 12 five-seat constituencies, down from 14

• 13 four-seat constituencies, up from 12

• 18 three-seat constituencies, up from 16

Marginal Changes

• Ten of 12 Dublin constituency boundaries change

• 11 other constituency boundaries change. They are Clare, Cork Northwest, Cork South Central, Cork Southwest, Donegal Northeast and Southwest, Kerry North and South, Limerick East and West and Kildare South


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