We are on the verge of the biggest upheaval of Dáil constituencies and political arithmetic since the infamous Tullymander of the 1970s. Ireland’s population is growing at the rate of two TDs per year. That’s 10 TDs extra after every five-year census. Over 20 years, 40 more TDs will bring the Dáil from 160 deputies now to 200. In the furore of “postergate”, a fundamental fact was missed. Lamp posts must be increased in height to accommodate additional demand.
We will have between 11 and 21 more TDs when the new electoral commission reports, likely before summer. The Constitution prescribes one Dáil seat for every 20,000-30,000 of population, and we are over the upper limit with 32,000 per seat now. The increase in seat numbers is automatic and exponential. If 11 extra seats are required at a minimum, it is unlikely the commission will take a minimalist approach. It may deploy further additional seats to future proof its new constituency map.
In advance of the 1977 election, Jim Tully – then Labour minister for local government – redrew the political map. Such was the consequence of that gerrymander, it bore his name since. Tully bet that Fianna Fáil couldn’t get above 40 per cent in Dublin and created 13 three-seat constituencies in the capital. The result, he hoped, would be one each for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour, thus favouring the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In a landslide, Fianna Fáil got two out of three seats in eight of the 13 Dublin three-seaters.
What’s coming soon is impeccably impartial but bigger. Significant additional seats mean wholescale constituency changes. A larger Dáil, a different map and a changed ratio of three-, four- and five-seat constituencies put everything in play in a system where geographical location within a constituency, and the number of seats it has, critically influences outcome. Additionally, parties who want to qualify for public funding must ensure that 40 per cent of their candidates are women which means a big remix of candidates. Additionally, local and European elections will be in May 2024, only months before a general election that may be held that autumn. The number of moving pieces is increasing dramatically.
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The constituency review will be carried out by a new Electoral Commission with a wider remit including the electoral register, research and education. The imminent appointment of a judge as its chair triggers it into life. Importantly, it now has four lay members as well as the clerk of the Dáil and the ombudsman. Time will tell how that different complexion influences events.
A view in Leinster House is that extra seats help incumbents hold on. That depends on the bailiwick of the sitting TD not being sliced apart by boundary changes. It depends too on how many incumbents you have and how entrenched they are. The Fine Gael parliamentary party’s relative longevity means it has potentially the most retirees. Every constituency is a microcosm and every move locally influences the national outcome.
Electorally, everything favours the party with momentum. That’s what happened in 1977 for Fianna Fáil. A Sinn Féin surge reconfigured the political landscape in 2020. If it were to have a percentage of the national vote in the mid-2030s, it is set for a seat in every constituency and two in every five-seater. The reduction of the number of local authorities and a redistribution of council seats to underrepresented urban areas including Dublin, gave unfounded comfort to the Labour Party before the 2014 local elections. Momentum had deserted it, however, and rearranging the sandbags couldn’t hold back the tide.
Momentum is one electoral currency and transfers are another. Sinn Féin toxicity is diminished. It is clear that Fianna Fáil would coalesce with them if that’s what the numbers require to form a government. Since Sunday, it is explicit that the Green Party would also go into coalition if Sinn Féin upped its game on climate change. Ironically, Fine Gael could face into an election with more retirees and fewer transfers than it wants or needs. There is no accurate way of predicting the political landscape nearly two years in advance. But if Ireland is increasingly a political melting pot, structural change on this scale turns up the heat under that pot.
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The report of the Electoral Commission will be an all-you-can-eat buffet for political anoraks. But the underlying trend of massive increases in Dáil numbers has escaped discussion. We already have a high ratio of national parliamentarians by international standards. The multiseat constituency combined with weak local government means we expect our TDs to have a strong local presence. Diligence is ever-less a guarantee of survival, however. The tide is coming in higher and faster.
Of 160 TDs elected in 2020, 48 were new. In 2016 that number was 52, in 2011 it was 76. It is a pace of furious political change now mixing in with rapid expansion of the national parliament. The year 1937, when the Constitution was written, was a period of population decline. So was the next half century. We need a referendum to turn off the tap before our cup overfloweth. Whatever is wrong, it is not because our parliament is too small. The party in the next election that promises a referendum to cap the size of the Dáil could have a popular proposal.