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VOICES

Malcolm Noonan 'For politics to work, we need fewer TDs and larger constituencies'

The junior minister says rather than increasing TDs, we need to move them away from the parish pump.

IN AUGUST 1937, public information notices began appearing in national newspapers to mark a very important development. The country’s first-ever set of traffic lights had been installed at the junction of Merrion Street and Clare Street on Dublin’s southside.

As a precaution, carefully worded instructions were being published on how to navigate the new intersection, which is just a stone’s throw from Leinster House. “You must not start before GREEN,” one newspaper helpfully advised its readers, adding that a pointsman would be on duty at the junction for the following weeks to assist motorists during the settling-in period.

Faded newspaper clippings such as these are a reminder that what once was deemed necessary can appear antiquated with the passing of time. Around the same time that Dublin was getting its first traffic lights, Eamon de Valera was overseeing the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann. While the constitution has largely stood the test of time, its requirement that the country should have one TD for every 20,000 to 30,000 people is growing increasingly anachronistic.

Old text, modern Ireland

This ratio resulted in a Dáil of 138 TDs in the 1938 general election, a perfectly reasonable size for a country with a population of just under three million people. Now, 86 years later our Electoral Commission will announce that it is increasing our Dáil’s size to anywhere between 171 and 181 seats in order to make De Valera’s increasingly outdated constitutional arithmetic match our booming population.

If the Commission lowballs and opts for the lowest increase possible of 171, it could struggle to meet the upper end of the 30,000 ratio by the time the next election happens.

Even if it opts for the highest increase possible and announces a Dáil with 181 seats, the Commission will likely have to repeat this exercise within a few short years as our population continues to grow.

Art O’Leary, the Commission’s chief executive, has predicted that the equivalent of two TDs will need to be added to the Dáil every year in order to keep pace with population growth. Others predict that Ireland could need 250 TDs by the middle of the century at this present rate.

Parish pump politics

The case for calling a halt to this ever-upward trajectory is obvious. Despite its rising population, Ireland is and will remain, a small country. There exists compelling evidence that many of our TDs are already too focused on non-essential work such as expediting passport applications and “securing” social welfare payments that constituents were always entitled to in the first place. Adding to the ranks of superfluous TDs is likely to exacerbate this trend.

Rather than draining the swamp as Donald Trump suggested in the US, Ireland needs to drain the parish pump and get TDs focused on national issues.

At the risk of prompting the usual “turkeys voting for Christmas” jokes, we need a cap on the number of TDs elected. Rather than increasing the ratio of people to TDs, introducing a limit in the constitution on the number of TDs would eliminate the need to repeatedly revise our ratios.

The exact number can be debated but the existing number of 160 TDs seems like a reasonable number to me. Large enough so that TDs don’t become as remote to ordinary voters as they are in the United States or the United Kingdom but few enough so that voters feel they aren’t wasting money and our backbenchers don’t feel like unappreciated lobby fodder.

As Minister of State for Electoral Reform, I intend to ask the Electoral Commission to investigate other jurisdictions in order to determine the best ratio of national representatives to people in order to deliver the most effective and fair form of representative democracy possible. Such a change would require a referendum but it is an amendment that could be easily explained and which voters would surely back.

This constitutional change would also need to happen in tandem with a revision in the size of our constituencies, so as to ensure female and minority representation is maintained and encouraged. At present, too many of our constituencies are three or four-seaters, a status quo that generally favours the larger parties and those who traditionally dominate Irish politics. In other words, white middle-class men from large parties.

A fairer system

Thanks to proportional representation, the situation in Ireland is nowhere near as bad as the United Kingdom. Such is the obvious unfairness of the first-past-the-post system that 14 million Conservative voters succeeded in electing 365 Conservative MPs in the 2019 General Election, working out as one MP for every 38,356 Tory voters. By contrast, 3.7 million Liberal Democrat voters were only able to return 11 MPs, or 336,000 votes per MP, while the 900,000 voters who gave the Green Party their number one were rewarded with just one MP.

The more representative system that exists in Ireland clearly allows for a greater divergence of views, but we should not become complacent.

While female representation in the Dáil has grown from just 12% of TDs in the 1992 General Election to 22.6% in 2020, we remain far below where we should be. Similarly, representation of minorities in the Dáil, be they Travellers or new Irish, remains non-existent.

Although the Electoral Commission was not mandated to consider six-seater or seven-seater constituencies, the introduction of larger constituencies could prove crucial in helping to make the Dáil look a little more like the people who elect it. This would not, of course, represent a silver bullet in terms of boosting female and minority presence in the Dáil – other work, such as more family-friendly hours and better community outreach in minority communities is also needed – but it would represent a very significant measure.

Fundamentally though, there is nothing akin to seeing faces like your own represented in the Dáil to encourage more people to take that daunting step and run in an election. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, as the saying goes.

Instructions on how to navigate traffic lights have long since disappeared from our newspapers but more changes are clearly required to our electoral system. Fewer TDs and larger constituencies is a formula, I believe, for less parish pump politics and more diversity in Dáil Éireann. Ar aghaidh linn!

Malcolm Noonan is Minister of State for Heritage & Electoral Reform and a Green Party T.D. for Carlow-Kilkenny.

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