Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review of Dail Constituencies (Part 1)


The boundaries of electoral constituencies are not carved in stone. As populations change in areas and the desired ratio of population to politicians changes so too must the boundaries. In the past this activity was in the direct control of the Minister for the Environment (or more accurately the Minister for Local Government at the time) but after incidents like the Tullymander in the 70s this power was passed off to an independant commission in the Electoral Act of 1997. The Constituency Commission is headed up by Justice Cooke and includes the Clerks of the Dail and Seanad, the Secretay General of the Dept of Environment and the Ombudsman.

Following the preliminary results of the census in April, the Minister has instructed the Commission to have another look at the Dáil boundaries, specifically asking them to reduce the number of TDs to between 153 and 160. There is currently an open call for submissions to the Commission and this series of blog posts will be distilled down to something vaguely coherent and sent to them on my behalf. The closing date is sometime in mid January so other interested people have time to do some thinking. It seems at the moment that the unify Leitrim and Swords campaigns are going to dominate the submissions.


The preliminary 2011 census figures put the population of Ireland at 4,239,848 which is up 341,421 (8.1% over 5 years or 1.6% per annum) from the 2006 census total. While the Commission can only work on exact figures from the CSO and not projections, as detailed in the 2009 Electoral Act, it is worth looking a bit forward. The next General Election is not scheduled until February 2016, but it is possible that date may be brought forward to Summer 2015 to allow for better campaigning weather and higher turnout. The table below outlines the potential population per TD over time under four growth models: 1.6% per year as national population increased 2006-11, 1.4% per year as Dublin population increased 2006-11, 0.8% - half the national rate, and 0.7% - half the Dublin rate.

The cells in red mark the points at which the representation falls outside the thresholds mandated by the constitution of between 20,000 and 30,000 people per TD. As can be seen, even in the lowest growth model, reducing the number of TDs to 156 would cause problems come 2015. Using the highest growth model, we are in trouble almost immediately at the lower range of TDs and even by 2015 having 160 TDs would be too few for the constitutional limits. After the 2016 census will likely have to increase the number of TDs again to get the ratio back below the 30,000 limit. Of course there is nothing preventing either a specific referendum or the forum on the constitution from modifying the ratio in which case the issue may disappear.

Ideal number of Politicians

For many, the ideal number of politicians is either zero ("they're all useless") or one ("put me in charge as dictator"). However, studies have shown that most national parliaments have a number of members in line with the cube root of the population. In Ireland's case this turns out to be 161.85 national politicians. Were the proposed dissolution of the Seanad to happen, it would turn out that the Dáil as currently constituted would be pretty close to the ideal number of members. A reduction to 160 would be perfectly acceptable but the more we cut the further away from the ideal we get.

In announcing the formation of the Commission, Minister Phil Hogan claimed the review would be a "real, tangible reform" making the system "leaner and more efficient for its citizens". Now in all honesty, does the Minister really think that cutting the number of TDs is a real reform? All it does is reduce representation to save money. I would much rather a cut of 10% in the costs of running the Oireachtas than a cut of 10% of its members. But I guess he has to take a fairly populist line in this era of austerity and have politicians being seen to be taking the pain alongside the little people.

Coming Next

In the next few posts I'm going to have a look at how a potential 160 seat Dáil might be constituted, taking a fairly high level view of the provinces and going into a bit more detail in the Dublin area where I have a better understanding of the lie of the land.

Part 2 here.

PS - If anyone has any great experience of using qGIS or other free shapefile modifier please get in touch to help me draw some pretty maps of my carvings! The CSO kindly provide population and geographical breakdowns of every DED in the country for personal and educational use but I'm a bit lost at sea!

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