The attachment of Irish people to their native county is vividly illustrated in the passions generated by GAA season, currently entering its critical phase – but county loyalty also has a serious impact on the outcome of general elections and ultimately how we are governed.
As the All Ireland series in football and hurling comes to a head over the next two months, another process going on behind closed doors will determine how county boundaries shape the electoral map for the election 12 to 18 months from now.
The seven members of the Electoral Commission have until late August to complete the latest constituency revision, which is expected to deliver the biggest shake-up in constituency boundaries since the job was handed to an independent body more than 40 years ago.
A large-scale revision is required because of the surge in population, which requires an increase in the number of TDs to meet the constitutional requirement that there has to be one deputy for every 30,000 people in the country. The Electoral Commission’s terms of reference specify that the number should be increased from the current 160 to between 171 and 181.
The other important requirement is that the commission should, as far as practicable, avoid breaching county boundaries in devising constituencies which can be three, four or five-seaters. The danger of ignoring county attachment was illustrated by the review before the 2011 general election, which divided Leitrim in half between two different constituencies. This resulted in the failure of the county to elect one TD, and the strength of local outrage prompted a return to the old Sligo-Leitrim constituency at the last election.
There is no way the commission can avoid breaching a number of country boundaries given the population constraints
In constituencies where a small part of a neighbouring county has been added on to make up the numbers, the evidence is that voter turnout has been generally lower in the add-on portion of the constituency. In its submission to the review, Fine Gael pointed out that turnout was 9 per cent lower in the portion of Meath incorporated into the Louth constituency and the part of Offaly included in Kildare.
However, there is no way the commission can avoid breaching a number of country boundaries given the population constraints. Some variation above or below the 30,000 population limit is allowed, but usually no more than five per cent either way.
Close to the maximum
Given all these factors, it seems the commission will find it easier to increase the number of TDs by around 20, close to the maximum of 181. This would also have the advantage of making another major revision unnecessary for the subsequent general election.
The key factor in determining the new constituency make-up is obviously the need to allocate extra seats to areas where the population has grown most. On the face of it, Dublin is entitled to another six seats, while the rest of Leinster should get seven. That still leaves a handful of seats to be added in the south and west but distributing them without arousing local outrage will take the skill and nifty footwork of David Clifford.
A lot depends on the starting point of the whole exercise. Given that Fingal is the constituency that most exceeds the population tolerance and is also, coincidentally, the home of Minister for the Environment Darragh O’Brien whose officials steer the process, it would be no surprise if they started there and worked outwards, at least as far as the Dublin area is concerned.
The commission will have a headache deciding how to allocate about seven extra seats around Leinster while keeping as close to county boundaries as possible
Fingal will get one and possibly two extra seats, with the current five seater being split into two three seaters or even a four and a three. An extra seat is possible in Dublin West or Mid-West while two extra are warranted in the south of the county, with Dublin Rathdown likely to go from three to four.
It is outside Dublin that the problem of county boundaries raises its head. The commission will have a headache deciding how to allocate about seven extra seats around Leinster while keeping as close to county boundaries as possible. The rise in population means that Carlow-Kilkenny, Louth and Longford-Westmeath are all in the running for extra seats and some change is likely in Wicklow and Wexford.
The reorganisation of the southeast could even involve crossing provincial boundaries into Waterford or Tipperary, although the commission will try to avoid it. The rest of Munster and Connacht should be easier to organise, and it may even be possible to reverse some of the more awkward amalgams such as Roscommon-East Galway or taking a chunk of Mayo back from Galway West.
All of the political parties have deferred selection conventions and decisions on candidate strategy until they know the shape of the new constituencies, but once they are announced in late August, planning for the next election will start in earnest.
For the longer term, one of the things the commission has been asked to examine is whether the number of TDs should keep increasing as the population rises. Given that the next census will probably require more than 200 TDs, surely it is time to change the Constitution to put a cap on the number.