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Ó Snodaigh outlines Sinn Féin opposition to recommended new Dáil constituencies

24 September, 2008

Speaking on the Electoral Amendment Bill 2008 in the Dáil today Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh outlined Sinn Féin's disappointment at the report of the Constituency Commission on Dáil constituency boundaries. Deputy Ó Snodaigh said the commission should have recommended the creation of larger six and seven seat constituencies which could encompass entire counties.

Speaking in the Dáil he said (Full text of contribution):

The first thing I would highlight in relation to the report is the fact that in a number of cases it ignores the spirit and intent of section 6(2)(c) of the 1997 Electoral Act, which states that "the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable."

That has happened in relation to the constituencies of Kerry North, Limerick West, Tipperary, Offaly, Louth and Meath and Leitrim. I believe that this could have been avoided and that the changes diminish the level of representation of the people living in the constituencies concerned.

In Limerick there is a strong feeling that the integrity of Limerick West ought to have been retained and likewise with Kerry North. Much of the opposition in the parts of county Limerick that are affected is based on the fact that there is a good chance that no-one from that part of the constituency might be elected as part of the new arrangement.

There are those who will argue that this is not important and that people still get to vote for the party of their choice but that is to underestimate not only the importance of local identity but also of the fact that the people best able to represent individuals and communities from what are distinct areas are people who are from those areas and living in those areas themselves.

In relation to Kerry North the transfer of the Deelis, Kilgobban, Knockglass, Baurtregaum, Kilfelim and Castleisland districts to South Kerry distorts what has been the traditional integrity of the constituency and the patterns of local representation. I would also argue on the grounds of local community and integrity that Corca Duibhne should be considered more naturally a part of North Kerry and incorporated as such. It would certainly make more sense than including parts of county Limerick.

Returning to the issue of the breaking up of counties. The question must be posed as to whether the people of Leitrim or of the part of Limerick included in the revised Kerry North will have ever any chance in the future of electing a representative of their county to the Dáil?

I know too that similarly strong feelings exist in relation to those parts of south Offaly transferred to Tipperary North, in north Meath, and probably most of all in Leitrim where that county has been divided between the two new constituencies of Sligo North Leitrim and Roscommon South Leitrim. People from outside of the county may feel that this is a trivial matter but if so they underestimate the real depth of feeling in relation to this matter and how local people genuinely feel that it will further disadvantage them in relation to a whole range of issues in which they feel the county is already hard done by.

Sinn Féin's opposition to the report goes back to the legislation which established the Commission and we made our feelings known at the time and tabled a number of amendments to the Bill outlining the direction in which we wished to see constituency organisation develop.

We argued at the time and still argue that the Commission ought to have recommended the creation of larger constituencies including six and seven seaters, some of which could indeed encompass entire counties or combinations of entire counties. We outlined this proposal in our submission to the Commission but such changes were not considered. Indeed the Commission has gone in the opposite direction by reducing the number of five seat constituencies from 12 to 11.

We believe that the changes made dilute the proportionality of our electoral system and distort the effectiveness of PR. It also goes against the original spirit and intent of constituency and proportional representation. In 1922 there were only 3 three seaters while there were five constituencies of six, seven and even eight seats. We believe that it would be possible to move in the direction of six and seven seaters and that this would produce a truer reflection of the PR system and the preference of voters, especially in the light of the much greater diversity of opinion and political representation in recent years, as indeed is reflected in this House already.

One of the factors which some Irish political historians point to in relation to the relatively short period in which the bitterness of the Civil War abated is that the nature of the proportional representational system allowed a great deal of variety outside of the two main blocs and thus to a degree mitigated what might otherwise have been an immutable and more rigid dividing line between Cumann na nGaedhael/Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. For example in September 1927, there were TDs from seven different parties including Jim Larkin as a member of the Irish Workers League and 12 Independents, a significant number of whom were effectively Unionists or inheritors of the old Irish Party mantle.

Sinn Féin is concerned that the existence of three-seater constituencies in certain areas and five-seaters in others creates an imbalance between the value of representation as between voters in different parts of the State. It is also discriminatory in that voters in three-seat constituencies have less chance of electing their chosen representative if he or she comes from a smaller party compared with people living in a five-seat constituency. That also distorts the proportionality of the system as indicated by the fact that for example my own party received just under 7% of the votes in 2007 but only have 2.4% of the seats. The same applies to the relationship between votes and seats for the Green Party, the PDs and Independents.

Members should contrast the ability of voters in the different types of constituency to elect their chosen representatives in the Dáil. For example the voters in three-seat Dublin North-West, do not have the same opportunity of putting their chosen party or representatives into Leinster House as the voters of the five-seat Dún Laoghaire constituency. Is it merely a coincidence that there is a proliferation of three-seat constituencies north of the Liffey, whereas larger constituencies are more common south of the Liffey? I think the Green Party and the Minister formerly shared that view in relation to constituency size but I am not sure whether it has survived their metamorphosis.

New developments have sprung up all over north county Dublin stretching into surrounding counties. Given this and the possibility of continued demographic shifts even with the current downturn in construction will it be the case that if we adhere to the current guidelines that boundaries might have to be changed every couple of years. It would surely make much more sense to have larger multi-seat constituencies, which could accommodate such population shifts without having to change the electoral boundaries constantly, hence our idea of six-seater and seven-seater constituencies.

The essential issue is that the commission was constrained by statute to have constituency sizes of three to five seats. That meant it could never address some of the issues I have referred to. The proportionality that is possible under the PR STV system in place in this State has been substantially diluted through the selective redrawing of constituency boundaries and the reduction in constituency size to three from five seats.

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