Recommendation that multi-seat system should stay will stymie political reform
Opinion: Constituency work will continue to take precedence over scrutiny of legislation
Sean Lemass with President Éamon de Valera in 1969. Fianna Fáil always regarded itself as ‘a slightly constitutional party’. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
The Constitutional Convention poured some cold water on the clamour for political reform during the week with its report suggesting that our system of multi-seat proportional representation should not be changed.
The convention proposed some tweaking of the system to allow for bigger constituencies, but the overall conclusion was that the system has served us well and should be retained.
The Irish electoral system, with its intense competition at constituency level between all of the TDs, whether they are from the same or different parties, is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for our highly clientilist form of politics.
The convention is probably in tune with public opinion in wanting to retain a system that gives voters a unique level of access to their public representatives.
However, the logic of the position is that under our current system most TDs don’t have the time or the energy to devote themselves to being full-time legislators.
The electorate can’t have it both ways: if TDs have to continue their present level of constituency work to retain their seats they cannot be the kind of full-time legislators that so many political pundits would like them to be.
Ultimately the people are sovereign, and politicians only survive if they are able to muster sufficient support. It is difficult to see any significant change in the way politics works as long as the current multi-seat electoral system remains.
A change in the system to single-seat PR combined with a list system on the German model has often been advocated as a way of providing a different mix of Deputies. However, this model was rejected by the convention.
There is no doubt that a switch to the German system would involve a shift in power from voters to the party establishments, who would draw up the lists. The convention report seems to have killed any slight prospect there might have been of changing the system.
As well as being forced to do constituency work, much of it pointless, the current system also pushes TDs into taking a populist line on every issue. One politician remarked recently on how, over more than 20 years in the Dáil and Seanad, he had made thousands of representations on behalf of individuals and lobby groups.
He had participated in numerous delegations meeting ministers and making submissions on behalf of worthy voluntary organisations and business interests. Every single representation he made involved demands for more State spending. Never once had the ability of the State to meet the demand been considered.
Even more to the point, the worthiness of the representations had never been questioned by the TD himself or any of his Dáil colleagues who participated in delegations. “In my experience everybody, the voters and the TDs, regards the State as a bottomless pit, with the government of the day and the relevant minister dismissed as mean and uncaring if they did not cough up.”