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Did Phil Hogan really gerrymander the local election boundaries?

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s charge against the Environment Minister has caused controversy, but is it true? Elections expert Adrian Kavanagh assess the evidence…

Adrian Kavanagh

CONTROVERSY HAS ARISEN after Micheál Martin likened the terms of reference set for the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee to efforts to manipulate electoral boundaries ahead of the 23 May local elections.

While he did not use the phrase “gerrymandering” in his actual speech, he did use the term in speaking with reporters and the speech itself does refer to the terms of reference for the committee as amounting to the most serious effort to manipulate electoral boundaries since the introduction of independent boundary committees.

Could such claims of “gerrymandering” hold any basis in this regard? Absolutely not. Gerrymandering is defined as an act that seeks to “manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favour one party or class“.

The main point is that it is a partisan act, carried out by political parties on their own behalf. It also generally relates to the actual practice of (re)drawing election boundaries. Ireland’s history of gerrymandering relates to the period before the introduction of independent boundary committees in the wake of the ‘Tullymander’ and the 1977 General Election.

This was usually engaged in by the person appointed as Minister for the Environment/Local Government who would redraw general election boundaries in an attempt to earn extra seats for their own party at the following general election.

Perhaps the most successful of these gerrymanders was the ‘Kevinmander’ of the 1960s, after the Fianna Fáil minister, Kevin Boland. His redrawing of the Dáil electoral boundaries played a key role in Fianna Fail winning a majority at the 1969 General Election despite winning fewer votes than the combined votes for Fine Gael and Labour (although vote transfer patterns and Labour’s candidate selection strategy at that election also played a role).

Politically loaded

Since the 1977 General Election all boundary committees are now comprised of independent members and boundaries are no longer being redrawn in such a way as to achieve any political advantage for one party, or a group of parties, over the other parties.

Accusations of gerrymandering relate to the actual drawing up or redrawing of election boundaries and would be inferring that the committee itself was acting in a politically motivated manner. Which the committee, as an independent body, patently was not doing, a point strongly made by one of its members Professor Gary Murphy.

Could the changed terms of reference for the drawing up of the local election boundaries have been an attempt to maximise government party seats at the upcoming local elections? I’m not convinced.

I think it is possible for terms of reference for boundary committees to have some degree of political influence, but it is more likely to happen in the case of the terms set for the redrawing of general election constituencies and European election constituencies than it is in the case of local election constituencies.

There are far far too many different imponderables involved when it comes to local election contests to make successful any attempt to wrest political gains out of changes to the terms of reference set for these.

In fairness, I do not think Micheál Martin meant to impugn the integrity of the committee members, but ran the risk of doing so with his incorrect use of the phrase. If politicians are to use politically loaded phrases such as gerrymandering, they should use them correctly.

Did the terms of reference limit the committee’s decision making process to the point that they were forced into decisions that would favour Fine Gael and/or Labour candidates? In my opinion, the terms of reference set for the committee ultimately allowed them a considerable degree of freedom, especially in relation to key decisions made as to the number of seats per constituency.

Ultimately the history of gerrymandering in Ireland was based around the number of seats assigned to different Dáil constituencies. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael/Labour favoured odd-numbers of seats (i.e. 3-seat or 5-seat constituencies) in areas where they were strong (i.e. expected to win c. 50 per cent of the vote, which would be translated into 2 seats in a 3-seater and 3-seats in a 5-seater). And they preferred to have even-numbers of seats (i.e. 4-seat constituencies) in areas where they were weaker (i.e. expected to win c. 40 per cent of the vote, which would be translated into 2 seats in a 4-seater).

A degree of freedom

The terms of reference allowed the committee a considerable degree of freedom in terms of the number of seats allocated to the new electoral areas, namely the ability to choose between allocating 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 seats per electoral area.

In fact, the 2013 committee had one more option than the 4, 5, 6 or 7 seat options that I and the other members of the 2008 committees had to choose from (although 3-seat constituencies were allowed in exceptional circumstances). There may have beem some basis for querying the stipulation that the electoral area/municipal district containing the “county town” should have the most seats, as this seems to influence the committee into allocating more seats to the most urban of the electoral areas in a county.

But having served on one of the 2008 Boundary Committees myself I would assume that the committee probably would have, on the basis of population density concerns, assigned the most seats in a county to the more urban/”county town” electoral area in any course.

The decision to increase seat numbers in Dublin and other, generally more urban, local authority areas and to reduce these in the more rural areas also cannot be viewed as an act that will necessarily benefit the government parties. Fine Gael won by far the largest number of seats in rural Ireland at the 2009 City and County Council elections and hence would be the party that should be the most adversely affected by the reduction in the sizes of different rural County Councils.

It has been alleged that Labour would benefit from the increased number of seats being allocated to the Dublin local authorities. But voting trends in the past has shown support levels for parties in the capital to be highly volatile and any likely decline in Labour support in May could well be most concentrated in the Dublin region, meaning that the party may well not be in a position to avail of the increased seat numbers.

Ultimately, it is my opinion that the terms of reference were not as such to constrain the decisions of the committee in such a way as to force them to choose certain electoral boundary options that would favour either of, or both of, the government parties.

Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth. His website contains some of his work on studying Irish election trends from a geographical point and this column is a version of an article that was posted earlier today on that site. Read a longer version of this post on his website.

Read more on Adrian Kavanagh’s elections website >

Read: Hogan demands Martin apologise and withdraw “gerrymandering” allegations

‘Hogan has some nerve, I don’t take any lectures from him’: Martin hits back in gerrymander row

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