Dramatic redraw will make jittery TDs more nervous

 

Many Dáil deputies have not yet planted deep roots in their existing constituencies

CONSTITUENCY REVISIONS were once done by the minister for environment of the day, often in close consultation with his own party strategists and in a manner designed to maximise party advantage. Now, however, every time a census is published the law requires that the government set up an independent commission chaired by a High Court judge to propose a revision of the electoral map. Since the 1980s the recommendations of these independent constituency commissions have been implemented unaltered by the Oireachtas.

The rise in the population by 8.2 per cent measured in Census 2011 and the disparate pattern of that population growth would of itself have made the commission’s task difficult this time around. The Government’s populist insistence on lowering the number of TDs made their task even more challenging.

Their report proposes the most dramatic reconfiguration of Ireland’s electoral map ever recommended. Three constituencies have been abolished. Three-quarters of the constituencies have been altered. Eight three-seaters have been merged. Ten county boundaries have been breached and in excess of 270,000 people have been transferred.

In some places the redraws suggest the use of a butcher’s cleaver rather than a surgeon’s scalpel. The most gruesome hacking was done in Connacht-Ulster. Mayo loses a seat but also loses more than 10,000 people to Galway West. Galway East becomes a three-seater so Ballinasloe and its environs have been transferred to the newly drawn constituency of Roscommon-Galway. Leitrim has been reunited within one constituency and now joins a large chunk of west Cavan and a smaller portion of south Donegal into a peculiarly shaped Sligo-Leitrim constituency.

Laois and Offaly, which have been politically conjoined since the foundation of the State, have now been severed. To make Offaly viable as a four-seater the commission has scalped the northern-most part of Tipperary into Offaly and squeezed the rest of Tipperary North in with Tipperary South to create a new five-seat constituency. They took a seat from Donegal and from Kerry in the same way by drawing two existing three-seaters into a single a five-seater.

The new electoral map of Dublin is at least more coherent. The constituencies there are now generally aligned with the county council boundaries. To achieve this, however, the commission had to cut two seats out of a reduced, renamed and reoriented Dublin South henceforth to be known as Dublin Rathdown. As a result, some of the country’s most prominent politicians face tough calls on whether to stay or shift to Dublin South West, which has an additional seat, or to Dún Laoghaire, which still has four seats but will be effectively a three-seater if the Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett exercises his option for automatic re-election.

With the scale of the changes and the other factors likely to operate on political outcomes in three years’ time, it is difficult to assess the overall impact of this redraw. Some of the implications for the parties and individual politicians are discernible, however.

Fine Gael, as the largest party, always had most to lose. The changes mean that Fine Gael is definitely down at least one seat in Mayo and Dublin South. The redraw also puts at risk one of its seats in Cork South Central, Donegal, Cavan-Monaghan and maybe even Kerry. In Tipperary North, the reconfiguration damages Noel Coonan; and in Galway East, Paul Connaughton is left marooned in Roscommon-Galway.

Labour’s battle to hold last year’s gains in Dublin is further hampered by the reduction of seats in Dublin South Central and Dublin Central and by the transfer of Alex White’s original Rathfarnham base from Dublin South to Dublin South West. Labour is also not helped by the merger of Dublin North Central and Dublin North East. This new constituency has five seats where there are currently six, three of them held by Labour. One or both of the sitting Dublin North East deputies Tommy Broughan or Seán Kenny may choose to retire, making it easier for the Dublin North Central deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Sinn Féin’s two high-profile Donegal deputies must now compete in the same constituency. Holding the two Sinn Féin seats in Cavan-Monaghan and one seat in Dublin Central will also be more difficult because these constituencies have each lost a seat. Given the party’s rise in the polls, however, they should be able to adjust to these shifts.

The downside for Fianna Fáil is that its leader Micheál Martin and finance spokesman Michael McGrath have a seat less to fight for in Cork South Central.

Against that, Darragh O’Brien is the likely beneficiary of the extra seat given to Dublin North, although Trevor Sargent may have something to say about that if he were minded to recontest. Senator Averil Power, who ran strongly in Dublin North East in 2011, will now have more space to compete in the large Dublin Bay North five-seater.

Some of our most prominent Independents will find it harder to be re-elected. There may not be room for both Michael Healy Rae and Tom Fleming in the new Kerry-wide five-seater. There may not be room for Thomas Pringle alongside two Sinn Féin deputies in the new Donegal five-seater. The Gregoryite Independent Maureen O’Sullivan will struggle in the reduced Dublin Central.

Those in the current Dáil already had enough reasons to feel insecure. The underlying economic factors that gave rise to such dramatic shifts in last year’s general election have not gone away. Recent polls suggest enduring political volatility. More than half of our TDs were elected for the first time in 2011 and have not yet had an opportunity to plant deep roots in their existing constituencies.

This dramatic constituency redraw will not help stress levels in Leinster House.

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