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Stephen Collins: Does the Irish public really need 19 more TDs?

State’s excessive number of TDs may contribute to clientelist nature of politics

Government decisions are usually greeted with wails from the Opposition suggesting they are inadequate, ineffective or simply plain wrong. That is what makes the eerie silence over the proposal to increase the size of the Dáil by up to 19 extra TDs so suspicious.

It seems the entire political system is engaged in a conspiracy to ensure that all the current occupants of Leinster House are given the best possible opportunity to retain their seats. The only losers will be the public which will have to foot the bill for a bloated Dáil.

In a move that attracted little attention, the Government decided last month to approve an amendment the Electoral Reform Bill to provide for an increase in the number of seats in the next Dáil. The number will rise from the current 160 to between 169 and 179 due to the rapidly increasing population of the country.

The main thrust of the Bill is to establish an independent Electoral Reform Commission which will absorb a number of functions carried out by existing bodies including the Constituency Commission which regularly redraws constituency boundaries in the light of population changes.


There are currently 39 Dáil constituencies and the Constitution provides that there must be at least one TD for every 20,000-30,000 of the population. Last year it was estimated that the population had risen to over five million for the first time since 1851 and the census is expected to show a continuation of the trend to about 5.2 million.

On current population trends, the size of the Dáil will approach 200 TDs in the not-so-distant future

The Government is acting in line with the Constitution in providing for an extra batch of Dáil seats but there is a strong case to be made that the steady rise in population should instead have prompted a review of the outdated constitutional provision. On current population trends, the size of the Dáil will approach 200 TDs in the not-so-distant future.

Safety net

It is hardly surprising that sitting TDs of all parties are happy to go along with increasing the number of Dáil seats as it will provide a safety net for all of them whichever way the wind blows when the next election comes around. Whether it is in the public interest is another matter entirely.

The number of TDs has varied widely over the course of the past century, in line with population numbers. In the very first election in the newly independent State in 1922, there were 128 seats in the Dáil. That was increased to 153 during the 1920s but the number was cut to 138 in the 1930s in line with a Fianna Fáil election pledge to reduce the numbers.

De Valera’s Constitution set down the proviso that there should be a TD for every 20,000-30,000 of population. This wide latitude ensured that over the following decades the number of TDs was calculated on the basis of the lower figure to ensure the highest possible number of Dáil seats.

TDs are well paid, with salaries of about €100,000 plus expenses and in addition they can employ two full-time staff

Following the first independent constituency commission report the number of seats increased from 144 to 166 in 1981. It remained at 166 until 2011 but, in the general election of that year when the country was in a financial mess, Fine Gael made a big issue of cutting the number of TDs by 20. In the event, the government led by Enda Kenny settled for a reduction of just eight on the basis that a constitutional referendum would be required to implement a larger cut.

Well paid

In line with the rising population, the number went up to 160 at the last election and, if the current guidelines are implemented, it will hit at least 170 by the time the next election comes around and will inevitably increase in future years as the population expands.

TDs are well paid, with salaries of about €100,000 plus expenses and in addition they can employ two full-time staff. The issue, though, is not so much the cost but the question of whether so many Dáil deputies are a help or a hindrance when it comes to good government. There is a strong argument to suggest that the excessive number of TDs contributes to the clientelist nature of Irish politics as they compete with each other to woo the voters by holding clinics, going to funerals and adopting populist local causes.

A rough comparison with other similar-sized democracies shows that we are already over-represented. New Zealand and Israel have 120 deputies in their parliaments, while the Netherlands with a much larger population of 17 million has 150 seats.

One anomaly in the constitutional provision is that the number of TDs relates to population rather than voters. So for instance if there were 25,000 Ukrainian refugees in the country on census night, they would contribute another TD to the Dáil even though they will not be voting in the next election.

It is surely time to have a proper debate about capping the size of the Dáil at 160 seats and giving the Electoral Commission the mandate to redraw constituencies in line with population trends in the future without increasing the number of TDs. It should not be too difficult to get public approval for such a move.