Dáil Éireann - Volume 590 - 20 October, 2004

Adjournment Debate. - Constituency Commission Report.

  Mr. Morgan:Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas mór a ghabháil leis an Aire nua on the occasion of his appointment. I wish him well. He may be interested to know that a crowd of old Brits at the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body sent him good wishes as a former member of that body.

[1364] I have raised this matter on the Adjournment because the recommendations in the Constituency Commission’s report take this State further down the road of diluting the proportionality of our electoral system. This is most starkly illustrated by the decision to divide County Leitrim between the two proposed new constituencies of Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim, but it is part of a much more fundamental problem.

In this, the third consecutive commission report, the number of five-seat constituencies has been cut, while the number of three-seat constituencies grows steadily. What is most worrying about the growth of three-seat constituencies is that it seems to be the favoured option for dealing with population growth and change. I am disappointed the Minister has indicated he will accept these recommendations.

Do the people of Finglas in three-seat Dublin North-West have the same opportunity for putting their chosen party or representative into Leinster House as the people in leafy Dundrum in Dublin South, a five-seat constituency? Is it merely a coincidence that there is a proliferation of three-seat constituencies north of the Liffey whereas the larger constituencies are more common south of the Liffey? Will the people of Leitrim have any chance of ever electing another representative from the county to the Dáil? Is the legislation restricting constituency size to three, four and five-seaters a deliberate attempt by the establishment to keep the marginalised, marginalised? Perhaps this would be best described as a more subtle form of “Tullymandering”, which is being implemented over a longer timeframe.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to state——

  An Ceann Comhairle:It is not in order to reflect on the members of an independent commission who are not Members of this House and are not in a position to defend themselves here.

  Mr. Morgan:I do not intend to reflect on them, a Cheann Comhairle.

  An Ceann Comhairle:An independent commission drew up the proposed constituency changes.

  Mr. Morgan:It operated under a particular legislative measure. It had a brief from this House and it is to that I allude. I am not attempting to reflect on the commission or its work, merely the guidelines set down by this House that restricted the commission in arriving at a conclusion. Inevitably the report will mirror the submissions coming to the commission from Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

Though I expect the Government to dismiss the concerns raised regarding the independent [1365] nature of the commission, this is not good enough. The essential problem is that the commission is constrained by legislation to have constituency sizes between three and five seats. The proportionality possible under the proportional representation with the single transferable vote system in place in this State has been diluted substantially through the selective redrawing of constituency boundaries and the reduction in constituency size in terms of Members elected from nine and seven-seat constituencies of the 1920s when the system was instigated to today’s five, four and three-seaters.

PRSTV using multi-seat constituencies is a unique system that is not much practised outside of Ireland. It was not designed with the intention of applying it to three-seat constituencies. The number of Members returned per constituency is a crucial component of the Irish electoral system. The higher the number of Members returned per constituency, the greater the proportionality of the system.

I urge the Minister to amend section 6(2)(b) of the Electoral Act 1997 to allow for the formation of six and seven-seat constituencies. This would restore the positive attributes of the PRSTV system, in terms of locally accountable representatives and voters being able to make inter and intra-party choices. The Minister, Deputy Roche, was elected in a five-seat constituency. Would he accept that the larger constituency size adds an extra element of proportionality to the electoral system as a whole?

In view of the importance of maintaining the integrity of county boundaries, I call on the Minister to introduce the legislative changes to which I referred earlier and to reconvene the Constituency Commission to consider the possibility of establishing one six-seat constituency comprising the three counties of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon. The Government must recognise that we risk losing people’s respect for the electoral system in places such as County Leitrim when it is seen that it is unfairly applied in ways that prevent them from electing their chosen representative to Parliament.

  Mr. Gallagher:I apologise for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who cannot attend tonight due to a prior commitment.

I welcome this opportunity to put on the record of the House the continuing non-partisan approach to the constituency review first introduced by the then Fianna Fáil Government in 1977. In accordance with section 5 of the Electoral Act 1997 and following publication of the 2002 census results, a commission was established in July 2003 to report on European and Dáil constituencies. The commission reported on European constituencies in October 2003 and its recommendations were enacted for the June elec[1366] tions. It reported on Dáil constituencies in January and yesterday it was announced that the Government has accepted its recommendations in full and authorised the drafting of a Bill to give effect to them.

The criteria which the commission and, by extension, the Oireachtas, must apply in reviewing Dáil constituencies are set out primarily in the Constitution and in terms of reference specified in section 6 of the 1997 Act.

Article 16.2.3º of the Constitution provides:

The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country.

The terms of reference for the commission as set out in the 1997 Act are:

A Constituency Commission shall, in observing the relevant provisions of the Constitution in relation to Dáil constituencies, have regard to the following:

(a) the total number of members of the Dáil, subject to Article 16.2.2º of the Constitution, shall be not less than 164 and not more than 168;

(b) each constituency shall return three, four or five members;

(c) the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable;

(d) each constituency shall be composed of contiguous areas;

(e) there shall be regard to geographic considerations including significant physical features and the extent of and the density of population in each constituency; and

(f) subject to the provisions of this section, the Commission shall endeavour to maintain continuity in relation to the arrangement of constituencies.

As I see it, Deputy Morgan raises two issues. The first is the increase, from 16 to 18, in the number of three-seat constituencies as a result of the commission’s recommendations. The Constitution is silent on the specific question of the size of constituencies. As I have said, the statutory terms of reference provide that “each constituency shall return three, four or five members”.

Thus, in framing recommendations that represent a reasonable balance between all the elements of its terms of reference, the commission has a degree of flexibility as to the size of constituency it considers best meets the situation on the ground. The terms of reference do not specify that one constituency size is better than another.

[1367] Deputy Morgan also raises the question of the breaching of county boundaries and the statutory provision that, in observing the relevant provisions of the Constitution, regard shall be had to avoiding such breaches as far as practicable. The 1997 Act specifically provides that the considerations listed are subordinate to the constitutional requirements. The bottom line is that, to meet the constitutional requirement in regard to equality of representation, the commission has to recommend constituencies that have average representation close to the [1368] national average, even if at times this means breaching county boundaries.

In accepting the commission’s recommendations as a package, the Government is stating that the non-partisan approach to constituency revision has served the country well and should continue to be applied. We intend that the Bill will be drafted on this basis and introduced as soon as possible for debate by the Dáil and Seanad.

  The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 October 2004.