Stephen Collins: Electoral Commission was right. We don’t need more TDs

A referendum to cap the number at 174 would surely find favour with voters, although sitting TDs may be reluctant to contemplate it

By declining to increase the number of Dáil seats to 181, as allowed for in its terms of reference, the Electoral Commission has given a clear hint of its view that the time has come to put a cap on the number of TDs.

The Commission had been tasked with increasing the number of TDs to between 171 and 181 to take account of the increase in population revealed in last year’s census and there was a wide expectation that it would go for the higher number to cater for the continuing increase in population.

Instead it opted to increase the number of TDs to 174 from the present 160. This is close to the minimum required to comply with the Constitutional provision that there should be one TD for between every 20,000 to 30,000 of the population.

The Commission has been asked to report at a future date about whether there should be a change in the Constitution to avoid the need for increasing the number of TDs at regular intervals. The implication of its current report is that 174 seats should be enough.


A rough comparison with other similar-sized democracies shows that we are already over-represented with 160 TDs. New Zealand and Israel have 120 deputies in their parliaments, while the Netherlands, with a much larger population of more than 17 million, has 150 seats.

Just over a decade ago during the financial crisis the Government actually cut the number of TDs from 166 to 158 to try to win back public confidence. A referendum to cap the number at 174 would surely find favour with voters, although sitting TDs may be reluctant to contemplate it.

Another welcome decision by the Commission was a determined effort to avoid breaching county boundaries. The last two revisions had led to a substantial increase in the number of county breaches, some of them utterly inexplicable, like the carving of a chunk of Mayo into Galway West or a substantial slice of east Galway into Roscommon.

A majority of public submissions to the Commission involved objections to the breaches of county boundaries with a number of them making the point that voters in the bits of counties lopped off from their natural heartlands attached to another county lost some of their motivation to vote.

The Commission has made valiant efforts to minimise the breaching of county boundaries and has reduced the number where this occurs to six. To achieve the objective it has increased the accepted variance from the national average of population per TD from 5 per cent to 8.1 per cent, a move that was justified by the outcome.

As for the changes themselves, the increase in the number of TDs has been accompanied by the creation of four new constituencies bringing the total to 43. One of the most eye-catching is the creation of North Wexford/South Wicklow. While it most certainly breaches county boundaries it is a compact geographical area and it is arguable that people living on the Wicklow coastline have more in common with their north Wexford neighbours than people from the county who live on the other side of the mountains.

The return of two three-seaters in Tipperary and the division of Laois-Offaly back into two constituencies makes a lot of sense as well as taking proper account of population increases. The same is true of the restoration of a substantial chunk of Mayo back to its own county to make it a five-seater once more.

Dublin’s gain of four extra seats was inevitable with the Fingal area now forming two three-seat constituencies. The restoration of a seat to Dublin Rathdown was widely expected as was the addition of a seat to Dublin Mid West.

The implications of all the changes for the next general election will be examined in detail by all the political parties in the coming weeks, and selection conventions are expected in the autumn so that they are ready for whenever it happens.

The decision of the Commission to increase the number of three-seaters has been criticised in some quarters as reducing the element of proportionality, but in the context of the other pressures of population and county boundaries there was little option.

There is always a fine balance between striving for proportionality while devising constituencies that are geographically coherent. The Commission has been asked to report on whether bigger constituencies are warranted in the future but there is a strong argument that larger constituencies will fuel the fragmentation of politics already under way and make government formation even more difficult.

One glaring omission by the Commission was its failure to redraw the Euro constituencies for the election scheduled for early next June. The European Council confirmed early in the summer that Ireland will get an extra seat, bringing its total to 14 MEPs.

At present Ireland South has five seats with Ireland North and Dublin having four each. The expectation is that Ireland North will get the extra seat but new boundaries will be required. The Commission didn’t do the revision on the basis that the change has not been legally ratified. As that is purely a formality, the delay is inexplicable.