Redrawing the boundaries

Editorial: Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has grasped only half the nettle

 

In accepting the full recommendations of the report of the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has proclaimed “the most radical shake-up in local government in the history of the State”. And there is no doubt that the reduction in the number of councillors from 1,627 to 949, and the unquestionably rational policy of amalgamating town councils into county councils represents important qualitative, as well as quantitative, changes in local government. Despite the complaints of many of those made redundant, the public is likely broadly to welcome the reduction of what it sees as a bloated political class. But in leaving intact the decidedly weak powers of councils, Mr Hogan, has grasped only half the nettle and surely disappoints on his somewhat grandiose claims.

A key element of the report, arising from its mandate to improve the balance and consistency in representational ratios in local government, was to redraw constituencies with a minimum of six and maximum of 10 seats. That specific shift, from 3-7 seats in the last redrawing in 2008, will significantly enhance the proportionality of results, but is also likely strongly to favour minority, community and independent candidate representation. Currently showing at 20 to 30 per cent in national polls, they have traditionally found that the proportional representation single transferable vote tends to militate against their election.

With the quota in individual constituencies falling from a high of 25 per cent of votes (in three-seaters) to a low of 9 per cent (in a 10-seater), the electability of independents and candidates with strong but confined local support should be significantly improved. And while there is nothing inherently more worthy or representative about independents, their increased presence may help to change local politics’ character in muting the effect of partisan politics in councils where, arguably, the ideological divisions between political parties have far less relevance than at national level.

Larger constituencies should also give Fine Gael the traditional “seat bonus” that the largest party enjoys under our system of PR – it should be able to replicate its 2008 success in for the first time topping the council seat league. A consideration for Mr Hogan? It would be churlish to suggest it . . .

The Minister’s willingness to provide some 50 extra seats in Dublin, and more seats in commuter and some other counties, in the interests of representational fairness has seen predictably hostile populist responses from those who feel we are already overrepresented. But the hostility to all politics , seeing the entire political class as responsible for our woes, is profoundly and dangerously misguided. Politics may be broken, but a vital and engaged democracy is key to our recovery. And not least in local government. Dublin’s opportunity.