Proportional representation and the single transferable vote: its use in Ireland


The single transferable vote form of proportional representation was introduced to Ireland in the dying days of British rule as a protection for the unionist minority in the South. The voters took to it with such enthusiasm that it soon became an intrinsic part of Irish party politics and the electorate twice rejected attempts by Fianna Fáil governments to get rid of it.

PR was first tried out in a special election for Sligo Corporation in January 1919, just a month after Sinn Féin had swept the boards in the general election conducted under the straight vote system.

The Sligo result showed Sinn Féin coming in second, behind the mainly Protestant, Ratepayers' Association. The implications were duly noted by The Irish Times, which hailed it as a "magna carta" for political minorities. The British government imposed it for all future Irish elections.

PR (STV) was enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, for national elections and was subsequently adopted in the Free State constitution of 1922 and by de Valera in his 1937 constitution.

De Valera had second thoughts about PR following Fianna Fáil's election defeats of 1948 and 1954. When he left the Taoiseach's office and ran for the presidency in 1959 there was a referendum on the abolition of PR the same day.

Although the voters made de Valera president they rejected the proposal to abolish PR. In 1968 Fianna Fáil came back at the issue but the people for a second time in less than a decade voted to keep PR.

In more recent times Noel Dempsey as minister for the environment proposed a change to a single seat system of PR, linked to a reduction in the number of Dáil seats, but his colleagues were having none of it.