Dáil Éireann - Volume 605 - 28 June, 2005

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2005: Report Stage (Resumed).

Bill again recommitted in respect of amendment No. 1:

In page 3, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:

[452] “2.—Section 5(1) of the Electoral Act 1997 is amended by the deletion of ‘Census Report setting out the population of the State classified by area’ and the substitution therefor of ‘Preliminary Report containing provisional information on the population of the State including classification by Electoral Area’.”.

—(Deputy Gilmore).

  Mr. Roche:I should learn a lesson from this not to recommit an amendment. Before we adjourned, I set out my concerns with the approach proposed in the amendment by Deputy Gilmore. After every census, the Central Statistics Office publishes the results on a phased basis. Volume 1, containing the population classified by area, has the necessary final data to enable a constituency commission to review constituencies in accordance with the relevant legislation, the Constitution and case law. The CSO publishes a preliminary report a number of months after a census, but it contains provisional information which is subject to revision and which is not regarded as having any statutory force.

While there is always a possibility of legal challenge in matters relating to constitutional law, I am satisfied that it would not be the correct approach to ask the commission to operate and to make recommendations on a basis other than the final census results. Neither should the Oireachtas be asked to evaluate a commission report prepared on such a basis. The approach we are following reflects the statutory requirement since enactment of the Electoral Act 1997 and the practice extending back over a much longer period.

The case law in the area supports the approach we are following. For these reasons, I do not favour using the initial figures for a revision of constituencies as would be required by the terms of the proposed amendment. I suggest to the Deputy that he does not press the matter further.

  Mr. Gilmore:We are very much in unknown territory. We have a Bill before us which will set down the constituency boundaries in line with the 2002 census and the report of the boundary commission arising from that. We know that there will be a census in 2006 and that the preliminary figures on that census will be published around July 2006. We expect, based on what is already known to the CSO, that the 2006 census will show a population increase of about 250,000. I referred earlier to the degree to which that is likely to give rise to changes in the boundaries of constituencies. It is likely that the constituency of Louth will have the same population as the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan after 2006, yet Louth will have four seats while Cavan-Monaghan will have five. In her contribution, Deputy Catherine Murphy pointed out that it is likely the 2006 census will show that the existing Kildare North constituency [453] will have exceeded the one Deputy per 30,000 ratio set out in the Constitution.

The Minister is very buoyant in his belief that the legislation before us is robust enough to withstand any legal challenge against it. The truth is that he does not know — none of us knows — what will happen if a case goes before the courts. In my opinion, there is a high likelihood that a case will end up before the courts on this issue. The court will be exercised about two issues. First, there is a difference between the provisional figures and the official figures. The figures available around July 2006 will be the provisional census figures. We know from experience that the provisional census figures and the official census figures do not differ much. On the last occasion, the total difference was about 130 people in the entire country.

Second, we must look at what is required by the Constitution. Article 16.2.3º of the Constitution states:

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.

What does the word “ascertained” mean in the context of this article? Does it mean the publication of the official census figures, or does it mean that once the information is available from the census returns that it has been ascertained? I imagine that the courts might spend some time addressing what that exactly means. We are making the legislation in the almost certain knowledge that this Bill, once enacted, will be challenged if an election is not held before the census figures for 2006 are available.

In such circumstances, two issues arise. First, we are obliged to comply with the Constitution. We are obliged to ensure that no constituency exceeds one Deputy per 30,000 people. We are obliged to ensure that the ratio should be, as far as is practicable, the same throughout the country. We are heading into a situation where we know that the ratios are not the same. We know that there has been significant population movement, especially on the eastern side of the country, which will give rise to dramatic changes in the ratios between the number of Deputies and population. It is not wise for the Oireachtas to make legislation knowing that it is creating a situation at the next general election where that ratio will be skewed.

Second, if the 2006 population figures are known before the next general election and they show the skewed nature of the representation or that the maximum limit provided by the Constitution has been exceeded, somebody will inevitably take a case to the courts. We will be creating a set of circumstances where we will have a case before the courts in the run up to a general election. That will create much uncertainty if the courts decide that this Bill, as enacted, does not [454] pass muster as far as the Constitution is concerned. If a decision is made in the High Court in late 2006 or early 2007 that declares the 2005 Act is unconstitutional based on what has been ascertained in the census, we will all be wondering what will happen next. Will it be appealed? If it is, it will be taken closer to the wire. If the outcome of an appeal upholds a decision that the 2005 Act is unconstitutional, what can be done? Will the Minister have to establish a new boundary commission and revise constituencies on the hoof? It should be remembered that on the last occasion a major case on electoral issues was taken, the High Court handed down its decision the day before polling. If that happens again, the question of the status of a Dáil elected on foot of an Act the court has found to be unconstitutional will arise.

I raise this matter because we are in uncertain and unprecedented territory. The next census will probably reflect the most significant ever changes over a short period in population in Ireland, with attendant consequences for constituency boundaries. It would be prudent of the House to take that on board. I bring my concerns to the attention of the House because it is not good enough for the Minister to simply say that he is satisfied the legislation will withstand any legal test. Not only does he not know whether it will do so but there have been countless instances in which legislation passed by the House has been found by the courts, within a short period, to be defective. We do not know what the courts will decide because they make their decisions independently of the House. They may present us with a political crisis if a decision is made too late to establish an independent commission to revise constituency boundaries.

We know what we know now and have a fair idea of what the 2006 census will tell us. As my amendment seeks, we should anticipate its findings by making provisions for them.

  Mr. Roche:I have listened at length to the arguments made by Deputy Gilmore. Whatever we know now, however, it is certain that if we proceed on the basis of preliminary figures we know to be imperfect and subject to revision, we will face a legal challenge. This is not the first time the issue has been dealt with by a Minister. On the previous occasion, Deputy Howlin was the Minister who steered the Electoral Act 1997 through the Oireachtas. As the 1997 Act introduced into law a practice which had extended back over a longer period, it is untrue to contend we are in unfounded territory. Deputy Gilmore was pleased to vote in favour of Deputy Howlin’s legislation.

The long-standing practice provided for in the 1997 Act is continued in my Bill. There is also case law, as I pointed out on the previous occasion on which we discussed the matter. I again draw the attention of the House to the decision of Mr. Justice Budd in 1961, as set out on page 119 of the Irish Reports, which could not [455] be clearer. According to Mr. Justice Budd, while the preliminary figures of the 1946 census were provided in the case he was judging, it is the final figures to which regard must be had for the proper purposes of comparison with the distribution of population. While Deputy Gilmore was correct to say that the final figure for the total population in the most recent census did not vary greatly from the preliminary figure, he was wrong to suggest that there were not variances at the micro level at which constituency boundaries are discussed.

Variances at the constituency level can be significant. There should be no great difference in the first and last figures for the overall population if enumerators have been doing their jobs. The final figures on which the Oireachtas has always depended are precise and they deal exclusively with the data below electoral division level. I refer here, for example, to the figures relating to townlands. The CSO is adamant that the preliminary figures do not have a statutory basis and that it cannot provide the detailed information on which boundary commissions depend until Volume 1 is published. One can never suggest that there will be no legal challenge in respect of a matter which has touched on constitutional issues, one can only follow the long-standing practice. In this instance, that practice has been to use the final, precise census figures.

In the context of hypotheses as to whether there will be a legal challenge, it is far more likely that one will be successful if we go forward on the basis of the imprecise, preliminary figures. It would not be right or proper to request a commission to use those figures. If one were to operate on the basis Deputy Gilmore suggests only to find the final figures to outline significant differences below the electoral division level, one would face a real crisis. The best practice is that which has operated for a long time. This was put into law by Deputy Howlin in the 1997 Act and it accords with precedent in case law, two examples of which I have recorded. It would not only be imprudent and dangerous to accept the amendment, it would be reckless. On those bases, I cannot accept it.

  Mr. Gilmore:I can do no more than raise the issue. If it becomes a problem, I will certainly return to it and have no doubt the House will revisit the exchanges in this debate.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Bill reported without amendment.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:Amendments Nos. 2 and 6 are related and will be discussed together.

  Mr. Gilmore:I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:

[456] 2.—Section 6(2)(b) of the Electoral Act 1997 is amended by the insertion after ‘five’ of ‘(or where necessary to avoid the breaching of a county boundary, six)’.”.

Amendment No. 2 arises from Committee Stage, on which we addressed in particular the issue of County Leitrim and the sense of grievance that it is being divided. One part of the county is to be included in a Sligo-Leitrim constituency, while the other will be included in a Roscommon-Leitrim constituency. Amendment No. 2 seeks to provide terms of reference to the next boundary commission to allow it to recommend constituencies of six members where it is necessary to avoid the breaching of a county boundary.

  Mr. Morgan:There are a number of amendments before the House on specific constituencies. Leitrim is the key to amendment No. 2 and was the subject of lengthy debate on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 6 addresses in principle the need to put in place the infrastructure to allow the commission to deal with constituencies in a broader sense. It seeks to provide that each constituency shall return three, four, five, six or seven Members. Meath and Kerry are two of a number of constituencies which would be affected by the amendment.

6 o’clock

I seek to achieve a greater degree of proportionality per constituent, while retaining the integrity of the constituency boundaries. While constituencies which accord to county boundaries are more common in rural areas, the principle is also relevant to Dublin where almost all of the constituencies north of the Liffey contain three seats and most of those south of it are five seaters. It is ironic that after partition in the early 1920s, we had constituencies with up to nine Deputies. In spite of the turbulence of that period, the founders of the State saw fit to put in place constituencies offering significant proportionality in terms of representation. Unfortunately, Governments on both sides of Britain’s border in Ireland have since sought to employ deliberately negative electoral engineering policies with which we are all familiar such as gerrymandering in the North and Tullymandering in the South. Notwithstanding all of this, the issue of real import in my amendment is that of proportionality. That is the crucial element.

It is important to point out that the concept of four seat, five seat and even six seat and seven seat constituencies is not that new. In the North all constituencies of the Legislative Assembly are six seaters. That position is fully supported by the Government for which I commend it but why can we not have the same level of proportionality here? The greater the number of seats in a constituency, the greater the level of proportionality. The division of County Meath into two three seat constituencies is a perfect example of this, as is the division of County Kerry into two three seat constituencies. Now we have this ludicrous proposal regarding the division of County Leitrim [457] into two parts, each of which would be linked to two other constituencies. Surely one large constituency would be preferable? This could involve a six seat constituency of Sligo-Leitrim or a constituency of Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon with a greater number of seats. That is what I am trying to achieve in the amendment.

My aim is not to be prescriptive. A number of the other amendments are prescriptive in dealing with the issue of County Leitrim alone. What I seek to achieve through my amendment is to give the constituency commission terms of reference which would facilitate a detailed examination of all of the constituencies and allow it to arrive at a conclusion that would take on board the level of proportionality involved while maintaining the integrity of county boundaries. As I have illustrated, this can be carried through in the case of cities like Dublin and Cork.

Unfortunately, when we examine the case of Dublin, it is inexplicable that there is a host of three seat constituencies on one side of the river while there are a number of five seat constituencies across it. I do not object to five seat constituencies on the south side but greater proportionality should be afforded on the north side also. This should apply throughout the State wherever there is a lack of proportionality.

We must amend the legislation to facilitate the constituency commission in carrying out its work more effectively. I do not wish to be prescriptive about any constituency but we should give the commission a framework that would allow it to do its work as an independent body more broadly. I look forward with interest to the Minister’s comments.

  Ms Harkin:I support the amendments. Reference has been made to the population shift. If one goes back to the 1920s, one will find that County Kildare had a population of 50,000, the same as County Leitrim. In the intervening years the population of County Kildare has more than doubled while that of County Leitrim has halved. That is an accurate, although extreme, example of what has been occurring.

If we look at the projections for 2030 from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, we will see that the population of the greater Dublin area will grow by up to 50%. In that context, would it not be reasonable to look at larger constituencies, whether it is six seat or seven seat constituencies, so as to cater for population shift? This issue will not go away. I will not become political, other than to say that if we had balanced regional development and were achieving what is included in the national development plan, we might not need to have this debate. We are certainly not striking a balance in terms of population.

Two or three years ago when the CSO published population projections for 2030 — it has done so again recently and revised the figures upwards — it described it as a wake-up call for the Government. It was saying something for the CSO to make such a statement but as I said, that [458] is the situation in which we find ourselves. The issue will not go away. Therefore, from that perspective, surely we need to look at larger constituencies because that would give the commission flexibility to try to ensure the maintenance of county boundaries.

We do not need to maintain all county boundaries. County Meath which has been mentioned could become a six seat constituency. If one wanted to do it on a trial basis, one could easily have put Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon together as one six seat constituency with County Meath as another. That would have been feasible but it has been decided to split them into two three seat constituencies. The issue of splitting County Meath relates to proportionality and representation which is another argument but the splitting of County Leitrim is a very different issue. As we heard in the Dáil today, the ratio is 1:30,000 and the population of County Leitrim is just in excess of 25,000. Therefore, if one splits the county for electoral purposes, it is almost guaranteed that there will not be a Deputy living in the county, particularly because of the way it is being split. The splitting of county boundaries is an issue nationally but the particular issue I wish to deal with is the splitting of County Leitrim.

Has the commission taken demographic shifts into consideration? Has it made any request to the Minister or the Department seeking larger six seat or seven seat constituencies to allow it to adhere to its guidelines? The guidelines indicate that county boundaries should not be breached where practicable. Given of the demographic shift, I know, as does the Minister and the commission, that as time passes, it will not just be County Leitrim that will be split; other small counties will also be split. The creation of larger constituencies would provide a solution to avoid this. Has there been any communication from the boundary commission about larger constituencies to enable it to carry out its functions more effectively and adhere to its current guidelines?

Reference has been made to the constituencies of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, all of which are six seaters. I heard the Minister say in the House that maximum proportional representation would be achieved if we had one single constituency, with which I agree, but that is not practicable, as the Minister and I are both aware. Let us look to Northern Ireland where six seat constituencies are in operation and have worked. In general, people appear to be happy with the proportional nature of their representation. Why should we have a six seat constituency on one side of the Border in County Fermanagh that delivers proportional representation to its electorate and on the other side County Leitrim is forced into two three seat constituencies that will not deliver the same level of proportionality? Most importantly, it will probably not deliver a Deputy who lives in the county. I support both amendments.

[459]   Mr. O’Dowd:There are two issues of importance, the first of which is the fact that a report has been produced. It is an independent report commissioned by the Government but with the consent of everybody. When one sets up an independent commission to do a job, one cannot really disagree with its results because it cannot be argued that it acted impartially or did not follow its terms of reference. It is not just the present Government that has commissioned such reports because previous Administrations have done so since the famous Tullymander in the early 1970s. It is not that there was not a political carve-up of constituencies prior to that period; of course there was such a carve-up.

As a democratic Parliament, the Houses have given the power to an independent commission to do the job for us and we have given it its terms of reference. It has followed them to the best of its ability and we are left with the result, warts and all. That is the reality we must face. Much of the debate on these amendments really focuses on the next round, namely, what will happen when the next commission is set up and the terms of reference it ought to be given.

I accept the argument in principle that one should be able to elect a Deputy for one’s area. The county system has been in existence for centuries. In the modern world, however, and certainly on the east coast of Ireland, it does not really make much sense. People want effective representation and want their representatives to be as near to them as possible. This is the issue on the east coast. East Meath is a fast growing area and there are approximately 3,000 or 4,000 more people living there than there were five years ago. These people send their children to school in Drogheda in the constituency of Louth and also do their shopping there. All of the services they want and need are available in a different constituency. The proposed constituency seems to enfranchise the people of east Meath, particularly those on the outskirts of Drogheda. Bearing in mind that the county boundary was formed hundreds of years ago, a different formula is needed so that the point of view of these people can be represented politically by those who understand it and who address every day the problems they face. As the Minister knows, I tabled a parliamentary question on this matter today. There was not enough time for him to answer it in the House but I hope I will be delighted with the reply.

There are two trends of note. There is a shift of population from rural to urban areas — including massive growth in the city of Dublin and its environs — and depopulation in the west. I agree with the Deputies from the west who contend that if we had a national spatial strategy that worked, this problem would be addressed. Frank McDonald of The Irish Times stated recently that Ireland is fast becoming a city state involving the city of Dublin and nowhere else. I agree that serious issues pertaining to the national spatial strategy have not been addressed by the Govern[460] ment. The continued creation of industry and jobs in and around the city of Dublin does not make sense. We should be developing the west, building transport corridors, including rail corridors, and infrastructure.

I take the point that Leitrim is a small county. Its population is smaller than that of Drogheda. There are more people living in my town of Drogheda than there are in the whole of County Longford. An agreement has been signed with the consent of the Department implying that Drogheda’s water and sewerage systems can sustain 104,000 people. However, the county manager expects the population to grow to 140,000 in the next five to ten years. There are, therefore, significant pressures on the east coast which we have not been able to resist.

When further changes to constituency boundaries are considered, we should consider the trans-county boundary issue on the east coast. The county boundary is not as important as it clearly is in rural areas with declining populations. Perhaps we should re-examine the terms of reference of the boundary commission. The Government’s national spatial strategy should be revisited and reorganised to focus on those areas.

Fine Gael cannot support the two amendments because the die is cast, the commission has sat and issued its report. We are not going to change it, notwithstanding the concerns that have been expressed. However, there are issues pertaining to constituency boundaries that are not being addressed by way of Government policy. The time to resolve these issues is after the next election, not now.

  Mr. F. McGrath:I take the opposite view to Deputy O’Dowd on amendments Nos. 2 and 6 which are very important. We need discussion and debate and we need to open our eyes to the scam that is being perpetrated. It is an absolute disgrace in terms of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill. As stated previously, the legislation is flawed and undemocratic. It should be thrown out. These amendments represent an attempt to bring democracy back into this State.

In considering the debates on three seat, five seat and six seat constituencies, anybody with a bit of vision will realise that three seat constituencies are a disaster for democracy. They suit the larger parties. That is the reality and it was exposed during this debate.

What is the exact position on three seat and five seat constituencies in the Dublin area? Most of the latter have been created on the south side of the Liffey, while many of the former have been created on the north side. The commission could easily have created a five seat constituency and four seat constituency on the north side but instead it took a very conservative view. I speak as a Deputy from Dublin North Central, where it is proposed to remove one seat so that it will become a three seat constituency. Many people on the north side are very angry about this. It will backfire on the larger parties in the next general [461] election. It is very important that the Minister recognises this.

I wish to address a couple of myths in the legislation. The amendments deal with reality. The commission removed from my constituency — Dublin North Central — 5,280 people, in the Edenmore area, and 5,020 people, in the Beaumont-Whitehall. The commission was established under the 1997 Act. It has five members but its terms of reference were given to it by the Government. It was appointed by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, whose track record on previous issues we know. The citizens of the State have major concerns about the narrowness of the terms of reference. On researching the issue, I noted that the commission held only ten meetings to discuss the election process and decide on the future of democratic elections in constituencies throughout the State. The Independent group would have ten meetings on smaller issues. It is interesting that the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern — Wonderboy or Superman, as he should be known — was given back Drumcondra and Whitehall. This poses an interesting question.

The Minister will know that the population of Dublin is exploding. If one goes down O’Connell Street this evening, one will see the amount of people and the traffic congestion but the commission has recommended that the number of Deputies remain at 166. It could easily have recommended 168. This would have made the democratic system more democratic and inclusive. We are to have 43 constituencies but will still have only 166 Deputies. There are to be 18 three-seat constituencies, which is absolutely amazing. In Dublin, with its expanding population, there are 47 Deputies. The commission could easily have recommended that this be increased to 48 or 49 in light of the population explosion.

I raise these issues regarding the amendments because there is a broader issue to be considered. Our citizens deserve respect and equality. A new debate is starting in respect of the census to be held in 2006, which will lead to further developments. If the Government is serious about democracy, on which we get many political lectures in this House, voting rights and citizenship, it should give serious consideration to amendment No. 6 in the name of Deputy Morgan, which is positive and progressive. It is also important because we are looking at the democratic interests of the State. Those who back the Minister may think they are pulling a smart one with regard to constituencies and trying to squeeze out smaller parties and independent candidates. However, it will backfire on them and people have already spotted what they are doing. Many credible people in the other parties with a genuine interest in democracy and the inclusive development of politics have also seen it.

Overall, the Bill is flawed, out of date and undemocratic. It is an absolute disgrace for a Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to present such amendments and legislation to the House.

[462]   Mr. Roche:I have rarely heard such self-serving nonsense in the House. Deputy O’Dowd made a very honest contribution in which he said that if we were to make the change now, it would not have the effect in County Leitrim suggested by a number of contributors. However, it would mean that the commission would be re-established and more detailed legislation would be required. The law currently provides for the establishment of a commission on the publication of a census but no census results have yet been published. Therefore, we would have to revisit the legislation, re-establish the commission and give it different terms of reference.

If we were to abandon the commission’s report and go back to the bad old days, we would hear other specious arguments. We would certainly hear more legitimate arguments. We abandoned the idea of a political redrafting of constituency boundaries to suit the Administration of the day and it would be an extremely retrograde step to return to it. It would be a step backwards to return to the bad old days. We set up a commission and gave it its terms of reference in law. Therefore, it would be dishonest to suggest that we should tear up the entire practice and return to where we were. It is not a practical approach and would not have the effect the Deputy seeks.

The constituency commission’s terms of reference are clearly set out in the legislation and in my speech on Second Stage. Section 6(2) of the Electoral Act 1997 includes requirements for three, four and five seat constituencies and deals with the issue of breaches of county boundaries. Deputy O’Dowd made a very valid point with regard to the so-called sacrosanct constituency boundaries.

  Mr. F. McGrath:It is a big parties’ club.

  Mr. Roche:As Deputy McGrath does not want to hear the truth, he resorts to bullyboy tactics. He does not prepare his contribution but resorts to anti-democratic means.

  Mr. F. McGrath:There are no bullyboy tactics. I have made some very valid points.

  Mr. Morgan:The Minister is bullying the commission.

  Mr. Roche:Deputy McGrath comes in to the House and tries to shout me down when I want to outline the facts and tell the truth. If he was better prepared, he would not need to resort to such gutter tactics.

The legislation enacted in 1997 provides for three, four and five seat constituencies. It is wrong for Deputies to come in to the House and impute that somehow or other those who formed the commission could have varied the law. They could not. Deputy Harkin legitimately asked a specific question as to whether they had been in contact? The answer is no because they were operating within the law as it stood. It would not [463] be normal for them to communicate back and make such a query.

From time to time the commission’s recommendations have been criticised for not keeping to county boundaries. I represent a constituency which has experienced every conceivable variation. At one time parts of County Wicklow were included with County Dublin, parts of County Kildare and County Carlow. There have been other variations in the past. Much of the debate surrounding the Bill has focused on the breaching of the boundaries of County Leitrim resulting from the commission’s proposals. I can fully understand the way in which people in Couinty Leitrim feel about the matter. In some areas there is an attachment to county boundaries, as Deputy O’Dowd pointed out.

The county boundaries issue is not as pressing in other areas. In places such as Drogheda the contiguous area affines all of its connections in Drogheda. One could more legitimately argue that in such circumstances the county boundaries should be breached. There is also case law in this regard such as the judgment of Mr. Justice Budd in the O’Donovan case. He stated that although in the main a system based on counties had been adopted, there was nothing in the Constitution about constituencies having to be based on county boundaries. This is true because the last of the counties, County Wicklow, was formed in 1604. Some parts identify more with County Wexford than other parts of County Wicklow. Mr. Justice Budd also stated the Constitution did not state that in forming constituencies according to the required ratio it should be done as far as was practicable having regard to county boundaries.

Deputy Morgan made a practical point about connectedness between the electorate and the elected representative. If we look at his amendment, we are talking about a larger constituency. Deputy Harkin is right. The logic of a large constituency is that there would be one single constituency because there would be absolute proportionality. Why stop at seven? Let us consider the impact of a six or seven seat constituency.

  Mr. Morgan:I will support the Minister if he wants to amend the legislation to allow for more seats.

  Mr. Roche:I will deal with that issue. Let us look at the practical impact of what the Deputy is proposing on constituencies with a population greater than 150,000. From the point of view of what the Deputy has brought forward, connectedness between the elected representative and the electorate is not wise.

  Mr. Morgan:I am speaking of proportionality, not connectedness.

  Mr. Roche:The Deputy is disputing the argument that there is a connection between the [464] elected representative and the person he or she represents, which is the very essence of democracy. I am sure the Deputy is not attacking it.

There would be an electorate of more than 170,000 in a seven seat constituency. However, that is not the best or most practical way to proceed. There would be an issue with regard to distances in handling a constituency of that size. Deputy Harkin is also an MEP and can attest to the practical problems which arise.

There is, however, a more important point, given the current debate. There could be a potential sense of political alienation in such circumstances. There is already a sense of ennui, a point on which Deputy O’Dowd touched. There is a problem if we say that the old constituency boundaries which were drawn up between the 12th and 17th centuries, should form the basis on which we should deal with today’s democratic units. We would risk alienating many and create a sense of futility with regard to politics. Deputy O’Dowd is right.

Bray, County Wicklow, has a population of 32,000 and is larger than some of the constituencies about which we are talking. Parts of the town are in Deputy Gilmore’s constituency. The identification of area is changing, the point made by Deputy O’Dowd. If Deputies were to think long and hard about the issue, they would realise that in suggesting a much larger constituency, they would contribute to a greater sense of alienation and removal of the population from their political representatives.

We must be fair to the commission. I am angered at the suggestion that it has somehow been motivated by political prejudice. That does a disservice to its members. Before throwing mud of that nature, one should think of the implications. When one chooses to throw mud at those who have served the people well and operated within the law, one undermines the very democratic principles that should——

  Mr. F. McGrath:We are entitled to challenge their decision. That is democracy and there is nothing wrong with it. The Minister wants us all to tip the cap.

  Mr. Roche:That is a completely perverse view. After a period when politicians drafted the constituency boundaries, we decided, wisely, to depoliticise that particular issue. It was decided by consensus across the political parties. There has been much comment on this issue of late, including contributions from Dr. Garret FitzGerald.

It is not proper for Deputy Finian McGrath to cast aspersions on the integrity of the people who made the decision or the basis on which it was made. It is quite legitimate, of course, to criticise the decision and I am not suggesting otherwise. It was very light handed of the Deputy to dismiss the Minister of State as being Superman, although I believe the Minister of State is a super man——

[465]   Mr. O’Dowd:He is more like Batman.

  Mr. Morgan:The Minister is making this discussion farcical.

  Mr. Roche:The Minister of State is a good example of a hard-working constituency Deputy.

One cannot be à la carte on this issue. One cannot say that one does not want the large political parties to make decisions on constituency boundaries and then say one does not like the alternative either. No cogent argument has been put forward for a radical departure from the arrangements that have been in operation for a considerable period. Constituencies restricted to three, four or five seats have been a fact of life as long as I have been on the planet.

  Mr. O’Dowd:That is a very long time indeed.

  Mr. Roche:They have been in operation since the election of 1947, which is more years than I care to remember. The arrangements have applied for over 50 years and they strike a better balance than the alternatives that preceded them.

I must make a point to Deputy Morgan and, in fact, I cannot avoid doing so. His espousal of the system that obtained in this country in 1922 overlooks the minor fact that it was our former imperial masters who dictated the arrangements that we inherited at that time. Whatever else motivated our former imperial masters——

  Mr. Morgan:They were never my imperial masters——

  Mr. Roche:I know that; they were not mine either.

  Mr. Morgan:They were not my father’s masters either. We resisted them steadfastly at every turn and will continue to do so.

  Mr. Roche:I accept that. Fair dues to Deputy Morgan. What I was about to say is that whatever else motivated our former imperial masters, it was not the well-being of the Irish people.

I cannot accept the amendments.

  Mr. Gilmore:Like the Minister, I was also struck by the degree to which Deputy Morgan was harking back to the days of the Free State for a formula for organising the constituencies.

Deputy Harkin mentioned the issue of population change and population decline in particular. An analysis of the census of 2002 — the phenomenon may be replicated in the 2006 census — reveals that the areas where population is declining are the expensive inner suburbs of the cities. In my constituency there has been a significant population decline. In areas such as Blackrock, for example, the population is declining for a simple reason, namely, the fact that housing has become too expensive, young families cannot afford to live there and regeneration is not taking place. This is possibly an issue for another day [466] but it is a problem to which we have yet to face up. Population decline is not occurring in the places where it used to occur.

My amendment attempts to address a situation where a county boundary needs to be retained. If one takes the example of County Wicklow, it is likely that when the 2006 census results are published, the county may justify having six seats rather than its current allocation of five. If that is the case, and under the existing legislation, Wicklow will have to be divided in some way. It could be divided into two three seat constituencies or perhaps some other formula could be agreed upon. It would make sense for a commission to have the option to examine the possibility of retaining the county’s integrity. It would be useful if it had a greater degree of latitude in its decision-making. Where six seats would solve the problem, the commission would not then have to divide the county with all of the discontinuity that can entail. My amendment simply seeks to allow for a degree of latitude.

On the question of proportionality and larger numbers of seats, it depends on one’s starting point. If an individual or party is on 12% of the vote, then one could say that winning one seat in a seven seat constituency is proportionate. However, if that rises to 20% of the vote in a seven seat constituency and still only one seat is won, then it is no longer proportionate. Proportionality depends on one’s starting point. It is not necessarily the case that larger numbers of seats confer greater proportionality, particularly in terms of political parties rather than individuals. One could have, for example, a four seat and a three seat constituency side by side that might be merged into a seven seat constituency. There might be two independent candidates from each of the original constituencies who would then find themselves in the same seven seat constituency. That might not be the most comfortable arrangement and it might not produce the kind of proportionate results that people seek. Proportionality has a lot to do with perception.

  Mr. Morgan:First, for the purpose of clarity, I wish to categorically state I never had imperialist masters. While there may have been occupiers in this country, they certainly were not my masters. I am disappointed with the Minister’s description of them as such.

Deputy Gilmore has just commented on the issue of proportionality but I am disappointed that the person to whom I directed my question, namely, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, did not deal with the issue. Proportionality is central to the argument I am making.

I have never challenged the independence of the commission. My amendment attempts to put terms of reference in place which will broaden the scope of the commission and that issue was not adequately addressed by the Minister’s comments either.

[467] As I am aware that we are pressed for time and that other Deputies wish to contribute to the debate, I will ask only one question of the Minister. In the event that the census is held next year, the results are published in January 2007 but the general election is not held until May 2007, will the Minister reappoint the constituency commission in the intervening months? At that point, the scenario referred to by Deputy Gilmore may be clear and it may be obvious that proportionality is not in place. What would happen in that event?

  Mr. Cassidy:I do not think any other Member of this House has suffered more than me through the redrawing of constituency boundaries. One third of County Westmeath was merged with County Meath and I lost 24% of my first preference vote.

  Mr. Morgan:Was it not Senator O’Rourke who took those votes from the Deputy?

  Mr. Cassidy:I am relating a factual matter. I wish Deputy Morgan well and know he has a safe seat——

  Mr. Morgan:There is no such thing as a safe seat.

  Mr. Cassidy:——but the public can also favour the underdog.

I have been in Leinster House for 23 years and seen many things. I am aware of the job that the commission must do and understand why it has to do its work. The redrawing of boundaries started in counties Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo and then affected County Westmeath. I understand why north-west Meath was put back in with the rest of the county. If part of a county must be divided, I do not think any Minister should preside over the division of a parish but my parish has been divided in two. In Castlepollard my brother 400 yards to the right of my home can vote for me but I cannot vote for myself. Neither can my mother. No one living in a rural area which takes up one third of the county can vote for me. Raharney, a small village of 230 people, has also been divided in two.

  Mr. Morgan:Will the Deputy vote with us?

  Mr. Cassidy:This division is wrong. An area’s identity, ethos and culture have been completely removed. I make a strong case that whatever must be done with county boundaries — I acknowledge there are exceptions and the com[468] mission must make decisions — that under no circumstances should parishes be divided.

  Ms Harkin:I agree with the Minister; it was absolutely right to depoliticise the issue of constituency boundaries but the guidelines can be changed. While the commission is an independent body, this House is in a position to change the guidelines. I am asking the Minister to do so.

Deputy Gilmore spoke about proportionality. I am not an expert on the matter but it seems that it depends on where one is coming from. The Deputy referred to two constituencies, a three seater and a four seater with an Independent Deputy in each who might not like to be joined in a seven seater. However, this is not about Labour Party, Fianna Fáil or Independent Deputies but the electorate.

  Mr. Gilmore:Agreed.

  Ms Harkin:The electorate should have——

(Interruptions).

  Mr. F. McGrath:Or it is about winning.

  Ms Harkin:The issue of county boundaries came to light when County Leitrim was split. Following the 1977 general election the county did not have a TD resident in it. This caused outrage at the time and a major campaign was begun, as a result of which one of the guidelines about not breaching county boundaries, where practicable, was inserted into the legislation but now in 2005 we are right back where we started and making the same mistakes again. We seem to be moving backward instead of forward. At one point in the 1940s I think there were three County Leitrim TDs in a seven seat constituency but now the county is facing the prospect that in a three seat constituency there may be no TD living in the county. This is a disenfranchisement of the people of County Leitrim. It is almost saying that because the county is so small it really does not matter. The 2002 census showed that there were 25,799 people living there. I advise the Minister that if County Leitrim is split, it will almost certainly lose a resident TD. I ask him to look again at the legislation and amend it to ensure the county will have a reasonable chance of having a resident TD.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:As the time permitted for this debate has expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil today: “That Fourth Stage is hereby completed and that the Bill is hereby passed.”

Question put.

[469] The Dáil divided: Tá, 114; Níl, 13.

    Ahern, Bertie.

    Ahern, Dermot.

    Ahern, Michael.

    Ahern, Noel.

    Allen, Bernard.

    Andrews, Barry.

    Ardagh, Seán.

    Brady, Johnny.

    Brady, Martin.

    Brennan, Seamus.

    Broughan, Thomas P.

    Browne, John.

    Bruton, Richard.

    Burton, Joan.

    Callanan, Joe.

    Callely, Ivor.

    Carey, Pat.

    Carty, John.

    Cassidy, Donie.

    Collins, Michael.

    Connaughton, Paul.

    Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.

    Cowen, Brian.

    Crawford, Seymour.

    Cregan, John.

    Curran, John.

    Davern, Noel.

    Deasy, John.

    Deenihan, Jimmy.

    Dempsey, Tony.

    Dennehy, John.

    Devins, Jimmy.

    Durkan, Bernard J.

    Ellis, John.

    Fahey, Frank.

    Finneran, Michael.

    Fleming, Seán.

    Fox, Mildred.

    Gallagher, Pat The Cope.

    Gilmore, Eamon.

    Glennon, Jim.

    Hanafin, Mary.

    Haughey, Seán.

    Hayes, Tom.

    Higgins, Michael D.

    Hoctor, Máire.

    Hogan, Phil.

    Howlin, Brendan.

    Jacob, Joe.

    Keaveney, Cecilia.

    Kehoe, Paul.

    Kelleher, Billy.

    Kelly, Peter.

    Kenny, Enda.

    Killeen, Tony.

    Kirk, Seamus.

    Kitt, Tom.

    Lenihan, Brian.

    Lynch, Kathleen.

    Martin, Micheál.

    McCormack, Padraic.

    McDowell, Michael.

    McEllistrim, Thomas.

    McGinley, Dinny.

    McGrath, Paul.

    McGuinness, John.

    McManus, Liz.

    Mitchell, Olivia.

    Moloney, John.

    Moynihan, Michael.

    Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.

    Mulcahy, Michael.

    Naughten, Denis.

    Neville, Dan.

    Nolan, M. J.

    Ó Cuív, Éamon.

    Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.

    O’Connor, Charlie.

    O’Dea, Willie.

    O’Donnell, Liz.

    O’Donovan, Denis.

    O’Dowd, Fergus.

    O’Flynn, Noel.

    O’Keeffe, Batt.

    O’Keeffe, Jim.

    O’Keeffe, Ned.

    O’Malley, Fiona.

    O’Malley, Tim.

    O’Shea, Brian.

    O’Sullivan, Jan.

    Parlon, Tom.

    Pattison, Seamus.

    Penrose, Willie.

    Perry, John.

    Power, Peter.

    Power, Seán.

    Quinn, Ruairi.

    Rabbitte, Pat.

    Roche, Dick.

    Ryan, Seán.

    Sexton, Mae.

    Sherlock, Joe.

    Shortall, Róisín.

    Smith, Brendan.

    Smith, Michael.

    Stagg, Emmet.

    Timmins, Billy.

    Treacy, Noel.

    Twomey, Liam.

    Upton, Mary.

    Wallace, Dan.

    Walsh, Joe.

    Wilkinson, Ollie.

    Woods, Michael.

Níl

    Boyle, Dan.

    Cowley, Jerry.

    Crowe, Seán.

    Cuffe, Ciarán.

    Gormley, John.

    Gregory, Tony.

    Harkin, Marian.

    McGrath, Finian.

    Morgan, Arthur.

    Murphy, Catherine.

    Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.

    Ryan, Eamon.

    Sargent, Trevor.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Morgan and Finian McGrath.

Question declared carried.