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Chairperson of An Coimisiún Toghcháin, Ms Justice Marie Baker (left) and Chief Executive Art O’Leary following a press confrence at the Royal College of Physicians. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Opinion The Commission has done the state some service but more TDs won’t solve the big issues

Dermot Ryan says while the boundary changes this week are welcome, a new system of electing TDs is necessary for a modern Ireland.

AS THE DUST settles on the electoral commission’s constituency review, TDs, wannabe TDs and political parties are now clear about the pitch they will be playing on come the next general election.

The commission had a very difficult task. No matter what changes they recommended we were always going to see a ‘domino effect’ on the numbers of seats per constituency and county boundaries. They were never going to keep everyone happy.

On the face of it, reducing the average number of people represented by each of the now 174 TDs is a good thing for democracy. Particularly welcome is the removal of seven of the 10 existing county boundary breaches, although the increase in the proportion of three seat constituencies to 32% from 23% of constituencies (nine of 39 to 13 of 43) will potentially impact the diversity of our representation, both in terms of smaller parties and independents, and potentially in terms of gender balance.

Politics for a modern Ireland

But the bigger question is how many TDs, and which system of electing them, will give us the capacity to tackle the big issues we face. The electorate isn’t screaming for ‘more TDs’, but rather for more housing, climate action and world class education and health services.

The real challenge now is to convince the public that how we elected TDs and how many we have has a direct impact on their daily lives.

Take climate action – a recent EPA report found that 96% of Irish people think climate change is happening, with 79% of people thinking it should be a ‘very high’ or ‘high’ priority for our government.

Yet when the rubber meets the road and changes are proposed as to how we farm or design new public transport routes, the multi-seat electoral system forces TDs to outdo each other to respond to vested interests. Accordingly, the ‘he or she who shouts loudest’ – whether it’s the commercial farming sector or urban residents who speak out against proposed new bus routes – claims that their human rights are being violated.

The same can be said for housing, where most agree we need to lessen urban sprawl, but the proposal of a housing development over a few stories can lead to years of planning system hold-ups, supported by local TDs and candidates, who don’t dare to take go against what is sometimes a knee jerk reaction to proposed development.

Parish pump

However, the close contact of our TDs to local communities also brings huge value. In the UK system, Northern England MPs were known to live in London 95% of the time, only visiting constituencies for major events, clinics, and at election time.

This contributed hugely to the ‘red wall’ success of Boris Johnson in 2019 and was a significant factor in the Brexit vote before that.

So, can we have our cake and eat it? In a mixed-member system, as they have in New Zealand, we would continue to have directly elected local TDs while also offering a national ‘list system’ to ensure diversity of views and talents and to make room for big ideas.

With one TD per constituency, voters would vote in order of preference, ensuring that after several counts the successful candidate would have to achieve the support of over 50% of voters.

Of course, this system could favour bigger political parties, but given our connection to local personalities and issues, who would rule out Michael Lowry TD for a new one seat constituency of Thurles?

By having a mixed system, that would elect half of our TDs on a national list, smaller parties would be well represented, and a diversity of voices would be easier to achieve.

This would help to achieve gender balance and any other targets in terms of diversity. It would also allow us to have a greater contribution to decision making from recognised experts. We could benefit from the wisdom of clinicians when planning for a health service and experts on climate to help us pass a cleaner, more sustainable country to the next generation.

This system is just one of many that could encourage a political class that grapples with the big issues, whilst keeping our politicians in touch so that they are bringing the community with them. This is how great change happens – be it a universal health system, accessible childcare and education or a safe and secure place to call home for all our citizens. If we can frame the discussion in terms of these outcomes rather than talk about ‘adding more TDs’, I’m confident the public is up for the debate.

Dermot Ryan is an advisor to public sector and not for profit leaders and has several years of political campaign strategy experience both in Ireland and Australia, including as campaign manager for Labour’s Ivana Bacik’s in a bye-election in Dublin Bay South. He is also the Chairperson of Alice Public Relations. 

VOICES

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