Rural bias of past has left us with a country and western Seanad
OPINION:WE ARE moving ever closer to real reform of our political infrastructure. Already, several TDs are under pressure to assert themselves as they see the intended reduction in the number of Dáil seats approaching reality.
At local level the smallest redundant councils have been put on notice of their demise; Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan appears, quite rightly, to be keen on giving us larger local authorities that are more suited to modern needs.
It is hardly surprising these reforms have stirred up resentment based on local associations and identities. Both the Dáil and county councils are fortunate, however, because they have a core function that can survive this surgery.
This is where they differ from the Seanad, and the constituency served by the Upper House now needs to be justified. We must allow that the Seanad has a nationwide base but its electoral college is essentially an extension of the imbalance that discredits our local authority structure.
When we use the census figures to examine the representation of our lawmakers in the Seanad we find some striking anomalies. Examples of this are easy to find. In the Border, midlands and west (BMW) region, for instance, each senator represents an average population of 73,020.
This is very different from what prevails in the greater Dublin area, in which each senator represents more than 300,000 people. Those living in the rural BMW region have more than four times as much Seanad representation as residents of the greater Dublin area. We have ended up with a country and western Seanad.
In the constitutional context, the issue to ponder is whether these rural voters should have more than four times the Seanad representation of their city cousins.
There must be serious concern at this uneven representation in the legislature, especially when we realise the impact it has on the reform agenda. This is certainly the case when it comes to sensitive and controversial issues of private or public morality.
In referendums on divorce and abortion, for example, the urban electorate has in general taken a more liberal view than its rural counterpart. Parity of esteem must surely reach all points on the compass, and the census figures must now add more urgency to this task of reform.
The citizen/local representative ratio is strongly influenced by geography. The people of Leitrim have more than eight times the representation of those in Fingal. How is this? Fingal has one councillor per 11,377 population, while the figure for Leitrim is merely 1,444. This raises constitutional issues because these local councillors elect the vast majority of our senators. I am not considering here the costs and fees paid to them, or the question of the usefulness or otherwise of the Seanad.
Many other BMW counties have over-representation of the same kind, including Longford, Cavan and Roscommon. This should be seen as an obsolete arrangement.
The last Seanad election provided us with strong evidence a reform of the local authority system is necessary, based on equal per capita representation, irrespective of the continuation or otherwise of the Seanad itself.
The essential point to bear in mind is that our local government system dates from 1898, a time when the vast majority of the people lived in rural areas.
For too many decades the public perception of the Seanad has been dominated by a rustic vision of a Ballymagash-type council preoccupied with comical debates that go on interminably. Like so many cliches and stereotypes this characterisation is an exaggeration.
However, urban dwellers did become the majority in the 1970s, and more than a generation later official Ireland continues to fail to reform these structures. This rural bias has led to a neglect of the urban engines of Ireland.
Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant and lectures in planning at UCD