Election boundaries changed ‘to save coalition seats’ - FF

Micheál Martin accuses Phil Hogan of gerrymandering in opening ardfheis address

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has accused the Government of ‘gerrymandering’ local authority boundaries for the benefit of Fine Gael and Labour seats in the May elections.   Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has accused the Government of ‘gerrymandering’ local authority boundaries for the benefit of Fine Gael and Labour seats in the May elections. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 08:43

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has accused the Government of ‘gerrymandering’ local authority boundaries for the benefit of Fine Gael and Labour seats in the May elections.

Mr Martin used his opening address at his party’s Ard Fheis in Killarney as a launchpad for a strident political attack on Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and the coalition Government.

He contended that Mr Hogan micromanaged the boundary changes and local government reform - which come into effect for the elections on May 23rd - in an “attempt to maximise Fine Gael and Labour seats in May.”

“He’s completely changed local authority boundaries and seat numbers to try and save as many of their seats as possible,” Mr Martin told delegates .

“It is the biggest attempt to manipulate election boundaries in the 35 years since Fianna Fáil introduced independent Boundary Commissions.”

Mr Hogan announced sweeping changes to local authority electoral areas in his reforms, as well as abolishing all town councils and urban district councils.

In certain counties, particularly in Dublin, the number of seats in each electoral area has increased substantially.

Responding to Mr Martin, Mr Hogan described the attack as a “cheap political stunt” from a party that he claimed “invented” gerrymandering. Mr Hogan also called on Mr Martin to apologise to the members of the independent committee who made the boundary recommendations.

In his address, Mr Martin also deplored the decision to abolish town councils. “This makes Ireland one of the few countries in the democratic world that will have no elected councils at town level. This is part of their wider disregard for the idea of community in policy,” he said.

Developing the theme, he said that a body was needed to have a focus for town activities and bolstering communities. He said town councils worked to support communities and were not to be seen as an option.

He also signalled that Fianna Fáil would target councils controlled by Fine Gael and Labour in the run-up to the elections and would also campaign against property taxes and the Government’s approach to water charges.

“The only positive message that Phil Hogan kept saying about the Property tax was that it would fund local services,” he said.

“This week he again confirmed that he is already abandoning this promise. The money has been siphoned away from local authorities and used by Ministers to pay for their own priorities – in this case the creation of the Irish Water quango.”

Mr Martin said the cost of establishing Irish Water had already reached €180 million. “That’s the cost of establishing a body whose main task is to implement a new regressive tax. The scale of the new costs and bonus culture was being hidden until it was forced out of them by our dogged pursuit,” he claimed.

The criticism has some resonance of similar charges some four decades ago against constituency boundary and seat changes changes introduced by a Labour Party minister Jimmy Tully in the 1973 to 1977 coalition government.

It was claimed at the time by the opposition that the changes were brought in to benefit Fine Gael and Labour. It became known by the pejorative term: tullymandering. If that had been the intent it made little difference. As it transpired, Fianna Fáil won the 1977 general election by a landslide.

More than 2,500 delegates are expected at the ardfheis this weekend. The party will run 430 candidates in the local elections, a third of which will be new.

Having expressed disappointment at the number of women candidates it is running, which is below 20 per cent, Mr Martin also announced the party was founding a Countess Markiewicz Commission to ensure that women were adequately represented in the party, as well as encouraging full input.

It is also running five candidates in the European elections. A particular target for the party is Dublin where it has no sitting TD or MEP and where it suffered substantial losses in the local election in 2009.

The two-day conference will conclude with a leader’s address by Mr Martin tomorrow night.