Students wrestle with electoral reform as Constitution body decamps to Trinity


IN THIS age of rap music and head shops, few would have predicted that the sombre topic of electoral reform would attract a near-capacity crowd to Trinity College Dublin on a cold Tuesday night in February.

Such was the case when the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution decamped from the basement of Leinster House to the Examination Hall of the venerable institution down the street to hear submissions from eager young TCD students of politics.

“This is the first time we have hosted a formal sitting outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House,” said committee chairman Seán Ardagh TD of Fianna Fáil.

It is extremely rare for committees to venture beyond their home patch.

Parliamentary reporting staff were in attendance to make an official record of the occasion and Leinster House ushers were there to keep order.

Instead of just tinkering, the young “witnesses” sought radical changes to the system.

The first student contributor Declan Harmon called for a list system in Dáil elections based on regional constituencies, in addition to the existing local constituencies.

Those elected by the list system would have more time for framing legislation.

“One of the principal features of politics in Ireland is the amount of time taken up with constituency activity and the resultant lack of time available for legislative work,” he said.

But his classmate David Kehoe rejected the notion that the current Proportional Representation-Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) system was the root cause of excessive constituency work demands on TDs.

He pointed out that an emphasis on constituency work had long been a feature of Irish political culture: “It was as prevalent in the 19th century under a different electoral system of first-past-the-post as it is under PR-STV today.”

Student Barra Roantree said the voting age should be reduced to 16 years.

The State required young people to remain at school until that age: “If we are not prepared to allow citizens of this age to vote, we should increase the age of mandatory education to 18.”

Julianne Cox told the all-male group of politicians that the 2007 general election returned only 22 women to the Dáil or only 13 per cent, which was well below the United Nations’ target of 30 per cent.

“Ireland holds 84th place in the world classification of women’s representation,” she said. “Female under-representation is a problem in Ireland and gender quotas offer a mechanism that can be used to improve women’s representation in parliament.”

Welcoming the committee to the college, Trinity provost Dr John Hegarty said the great Irish parliamentarian Henry Grattan, “would be particularly pleased to find that his student successors today are fully engaged in the affairs of the State”.

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey and former government ministers Gemma Hussey and Síle de Valera were among those who attended.