‘National debate’ on Dáil numbers needed as extra two TDs required annually due to population rise

Electoral Commission chief says not possible to ‘future-proof’ TD numbers within terms of current constituency review

Two TDs would have to be added to the Dáil every year to keep up with Ireland’s population growth under current rules governing the number of deputies, the Electoral Commission’s chief executive has said.

Art O’Leary said it is not possible to “future-proof” Dáil numbers to take population growth into account within the terms of the current constituency review.

He told The Irish Times “at some point there needs to be a national debate” on the number of TDs per head of population and suggested that the commission might recommend a referendum be held on the matter in the future.

An Coimisiún Toghcháin (the Electoral Commission) was formally established in February. As well as conducting constituency and boundary reviews, it is responsible for registering political parties, explaining the subject matter of referendums and encouraging turnout.


There are also plans for it to regulate online political advertising and for it to monitor, investigate and combat the spread of disinformation and misinformation during elections campaigns.

The commission has until the end of August to deliver its report reviewing Dáil and European Parliament constituencies.

Census 2022 reported that Ireland’s population has passed 5.1 million people and the Constitution says there must be one TD for every 20,000 to 30,000 people. Currently, all but one of the 39 Dáil constituencies have more than 30,000 people per TD.

Under the terms of its deliberations, the commission can increase the number of TDs in the Dáil from the current 160 to between 171 and 181. Each constituency can have three, four or five TDs, and “the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable”.

The results are keenly awaited within Leinster House as changes to boundaries and adding or subtracting communities from a constituency can impact on candidates’ support bases and make or break political careers.

Mr O’Leary described the commission’s task as “a battle between maths and geography”, saying there were a number of issues it has to balance.

“We’re hoping to be able to achieve something that will keep most people happy,” he said.

“Obviously, not everyone’s going to be happy with the outcome. There are always winners and losers because of the difficulty of the job itself.”

Mr O’Leary said the commission’s deliberations would remain confidential until the publication of its report, which he described as a “work in progress”. He offered no indication of how many seats would be added to the Dáil.

However, he said the terms of reference for the commission’s work do not include future-proofing to account for growth in population.

Mr O’Leary added that even if the commission decided to go for the full 181 seats allowed under the legislation for the review, it would still only be one TD for every 28,500 people, at the upper end of the constitutional requirement.

“That number would not survive the population growth as we have at the moment because our population is growing at a rate of two TDs per year,” he said, adding that “it’s not possible to future-proof”.

He said the commission may conduct research on the level of representation per head of population and confirmed it is possible that the organisation could recommend a referendum on the issue at some point in the future.

In relation to tackling disinformation and misinformation during campaigns, Mr O’Leary said he expected that most of the commission’s staff would be involved in this work coming up to elections.

He said the commission would also be seeking the assistance of social media companies in the identifying and dealing with misinformation and issues like bot activity. It would also work with the Garda, the National Cybersecurity Centre and other agencies.

Mr O’Leary said the potential misuse of artificial intelligence (AI) generated imagery and videos – so-called “deep fakes” – were a risk during elections that needs to be managed. However, he also said AI is should not be considered “all negative” and that he would be “astonished” if such technology was not used to aid the early stages of the next constituency review due after the next census.

“There’s no chance of a machine being able to have the finesse required to be able to make some of these judgment calls, the maths and geography judgment calls that are required. But it might take some of the drudgery out of it.”

Mr O’Leary served as interim chief executive of the commission before being appointed on a permanent basis for a five-year term after a competition run by the Public Appointments Sevice (PAS).

In June, the Sunday Independent reported claims from an unsuccessful applicant for the role that the process was a “charade” and that there had been a conflict of interest as Mr O’Leary had been involved in the team that established the commission.

Of these allegations, Mr O’Leary says the PAS “will be able to answer for the robustness, the transparency and the independence of the process”.

He said he was not involved in the design of the chief executive role, that the competition process was “really difficult” and he was “very grateful to come through it because it’s such a great job”.

The PAS told The Irish Times: “We are satisfied all elements of the recruitment process for the chief executive officer, [of the] Electoral Commission, was conducted in a professional and fully robust manner.”

Mr O’Leary’s salary is €216,000 equivalent to a grade III secretary general. “It’s a well-paid job but the decision to pitch it at this level was one made by others, not by me.”

The 56-year-old has worked in the Civil Service for almost 40 years, starting in the Department of Social Welfare but later moving to Leinster House. He recently served seven years as the secretary general to the President, starting that job part-way through the first term of Michael D Higgins.

Mr O’Leary said that job was “the privilege of a lifetime”.

“Every day driving through the gates of Áras an Uachatráin gave me a sense of wonder, no more than everyday walking across the plinth in Leinster House,” he said.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times