Adrian Kavanagh, 22nd June 2012
The lead up to the next general election began with a vengeance yesterday with the publication of the Constituency Commission report, recommending new constituency boundaries for the next European and Dáil elections. The main driver of boundary changes in the 2004 and 2007 reports had been the differential levels of population change across the state between 1996 and 2006, with particularly high levels of population increase in eastern Ireland and Dublin’s commuter hinterland contrasting with lower levels of population growth or even decline in areas such as Cork City and the west of Ireland. Population change again plays a role in shaping the changes being made in the latest report, but with less dramatic trends in the geography of population change across the state between 2006 and 2011 the main driver of change in the 2012 report relates to the decision to reduce the number of seats in Dáil Éireann.
The present Constituency Commission was established on 27th July 2011, after the publication of the provisional Census 2011 population by area figures; the fourth such commission to be established under the terms of the 1997 Electoral Act. The terms of reference for Dáil constituency boundaries are set out in Section 6 of the Electoral Act and the various amendments to this, including the 2011 amendment which reduced the range of seat numbers that the Commission can opt for from the old 164-168 seat range to a new range of between 153 and 160 seats. As has been the case since the 1947 boundary revisions, constituencies, comprising of contiguous areas, are to be represented by three, four or five TDs. The breaching of county boundaries, as far as possible, is to be avoided in the drawing of electoral boundaries, while due regard should also to be taken of significant physical features and the population density in constituencies. The Commission is also required to try, as far as is practicable, to ensure continuity with the previous boundary configuration and to ensure that the ratio between the number of TDs and population in constituencies is similar across the state. The latter provision usually acts as the basis under which a Commission is required to make changes to existing electoral boundaries. As part of the process the Commission called for public submissions to be made to them over a number of months between September 2011 and January 2012, with all of these submissions being published on the Commission’s website.
The range of changes in the present Constituency Commission report are probably the most dramatic to be seen in any boundary report since the changes in 1980 associated with the increase in Dáil seat numbers from 148 to 166. The number of constituencies has been reduced by three (from 43 down to 40), with four fewer three seat constituencies and one more four seat constituency increasing the average number of seats per Dáil constituency to 3.95, a higher level than that associated with the 2004 and 2007 reports. Indeed, the number of four seat constituencies (16) in this report is the largest ever number to be associated with a boundary report in the history of the state. Given that female candidates tend to do better in larger sized constituencies, the slight increase in terms of the average constituency size may make it easier for parties to implement gender quotas although the reduction in total seat numbers means that there are fewer openings for new female candidates to make a breakthrough. The range of changes to the Dáil constituencies may also require the setting up of new Electoral Area Committees to redraw local election boundaries in order to bring these back into line with Dáil constituency boundaries.
This report will be of course be of great interest to the different political parties, as well as for individual politicians for whom a boundary change might greatly impact on their future electoral prospects even to the point of effectively ending their Dáil careers. The report is also likely to have a particular bearing on certain areas and their representation levels, as well as their levels of political engagement and participation, in addition to shaping the degree to which political reform initiatives such as gender quotas are effectively implemented.