Adrian Kavanagh, 25th June 2013
The previous series of posts have reviewed in details how the new local election boundaries, as drawn up in the 2013 Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee Report, relate to the home bases of the current array of local representatives, both at the City/County Council level and at the Borough/Town Council level. Four posts looked at this with regard to City/County Council incumbents in each of the different regions – Leinster, Dublin, Munster and Connacht-Ulster – while the most recent post offered an similar study with respect to all those local representatives who hold seats on Borough and Town Councils. This post will offer an overview of the trends observed with respect to the previous set of posts, with specific reference being made to the implications of these for different political parties, levels of electoral competition in these different areas and political reform initiatives such as the introduction of gender quotas.
The increased constituency size may, in theory, be expected to help the smaller parties in winning seats in these local elections, given that the share of the vote required to reach the quota in 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 seat constituencies (ranging between 9 percent and 14 percent) will be much smaller than that which would be required to win seats in 3-seat (25%) or 4-seat (20%) constituencies. But it is worth noting that the actual number of votes required to reach the quota will effectively stay the same – and will in most cases increase, given the reduction in County Council seats in most local authority areas. More importantly, it has also to be remembered that voting patterns in Irish elections are highly candidate-centered and very geographical in scope, as evident in an earlier post on this topic which showed evidence of a “friends and neighbours” effect at play in Irish general elections, wherein candidates will win their highest vote shares in, and around, the home bases and their vote shares will decline the further one moves away from these areas as akin to a distance-decay effect. Such candidate-focused and highly localised voting patterns are even more evident in local election contests and party’s overall votes in local election constituencies are ultimately determined by how well their party candidates succeed in pulling out a strong vote from their local political bases. As such, the larger parties are not likely to be disadvantaged by these larger constitiuencies disproportionately, given that they are as likely to win 4 seats in an 8-seat constituency with four strong candidates as they are to win 2 seats in a 4-seat constituency with two strong candidates.
While the new gender quota legislation will not apply in the case of local elections, it would be imagined that these elections would be used by the different political parties to “blood” new female candidates. In that regard, the increased constituency size arising from the changes made in relation to the terms of reference set for the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee in this regard, does seem to offer scope for greater female participation in this regard. A study of the 2009 local election contests at the City/County and Borough/Town Council levels found that female candidates were more likely to be selected by political parties and were also more likely to succeed/be elected in the constituencies with the larger number of seats. While female candidates only won 16.7% of the votes and accounted for 14.7% of the seats won in 3/4 seat constituencies in this election, female candidates in 9/12 seat constituencies won 20.4% of the votes and accounted for 21.7% of the seats. (The larger constituencies and increases in seat sizes will also facilitate the electoral chances of candidates representing minority groupings in these elections.) Against that, however, the overall reduction in seats at the local authority level, with the abolition of Borough and Town Councils and with the reduction in seat levels for a number of the (more rural) County Councils will make it more difficult for new female candidates to make a breakthrough in these elections as this likely means that they may be facing increased levels of competition from experienced (mainly male) incumbents in most of the new electoral areas. It remains to be seen if these new boundaries will facilitate the greater representation of female candidates relative to the current level in which females account for just over twenty percent (20.4%) of seats at the local authority level.
The previous point highlights one key aspect of the Putting People First reforms; the significant reduction in representation levels at the local authority level and the likelihood of intensified competition at next year’s local elections, as a result, involving relatively high numbers of experienced incumbents and strong challengers. The overall level of current local representatives calculated arising from my analyses in the previous posts stands at 1,467 (covering all City/County and Borough/Town Councillors, but avoiding the double-counting of “dual mandate” councillors that serve both on County Councils and Borough/Town Councils) and this is perhaps a larger number than many observers would have expected. The main reason here has to do with the unexpected low level of “dual mandate” councillors within the state, with only 160 of the 744 Borough/Town Councillors in the state also serving on County Councils.
The knock on effect of this means that in most counties and electoral areas (with the notable exception of some of the City Council areas and the other Dublin local authority areas) the number of seats being assigned to the new electoral areas is somewhat lower than the current number of local representatives (including City/County Councillors and/or Borough/Town Councillors) based in these areas.
|Seats LE14||Current No. Local Representatives||Seat/Local Rep ratio|
|Cork City North Central||5||5||1.00|
|Cork City North East||4||4||1.00|
|Cork City North West||4||4||1.00|
|Cork City South Central||5||5||1.00|
|Cork City South East||7||7||1.00|
|Cork City South West||6||6||1.00|
|North Inner City||8||6||1.33|
|South Dublin County||40||26||1.54|
|Galway City Central||6||4||1.50|
|Galway City East||6||6||1.00|
|Galway City West||6||5||1.20|
|South and West Kerry||9||8||1.13|
|Borris in Ossory-Mountmellick||6||16||0.38|
|Limerick City East||8||5||1.60|
|Limerick City North||6||10||0.60|
|Limerick City West||7||8||0.88|
|Waterford City East||6||8||0.75|
|Waterford City South||6||5||1.20|
|Tramore-Waterford City West||6||14||0.43|
As the table above shows, in most of the new electoral areas and indeed in most of the counties the current number of local representatives (including both City/County Councillors and/or Borough/Town Councillors, making sure not to double-count the 160 “dual mandate” councillors who serve both on County Councils and Borough/Town Councils) is decidedly larger than the number of seats being allocated to these areas. There is a decided geographical angle here. The gap between the seats being allocated to an area for the next local elections and the number of local representatives currently based in that area is especially large in certain electoral areas, counties and regions within the state. At the provincial or regional level, there is a distinct difference in this regard between the Dublin region and the rest of the state. While the overall level of local representation in the Dublin region will increase by over thirty percent at the next local elections, even when the abolition of Balbriggan Town Council is factored in, in the other regions/provinces within the state the number of seats being assigned to the different electoral areas, on average, falls roughly between a half and two-thirds of the number of local representatives currently representing these areas.
With the exceptions of the remaining City Councils (of Galway, Cork and Dublin) and the other Dublin local authority areas (South Dublin, Fingal and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown), all the other counties in the state will see an overall reduction in their numbers of local representatives at the next local elections – even those counties, such as Cork, Meath and Donegal, that will be gaining extra County Councillors at these elections. The greatest level of losses would appear to be associated with those counties that currently have a number of Town Councils located within the county area. A good example here is Cork County. While this county is gaining seven more County Councillors, Cork County will lose a very high number of local representatives at the 2014 elections arising from the impending abolition of the twelve Town Councils located within that county. The level of losses is especially heightened here given the fact that only a relatively small number of the county’s Town Councillors are also serving as County Councillors (13 of the 108 Town Councillors in Cork County, or 12% of these). Significant losses of local representation are also seen to be associated with the counties that are been amalgamated with these boundary revisions, although the levels of losses being suffered by Limerick is not as dramatic as those in Tipperary or Waterford due to the fact that there is no Town Council located within Limerick County. The county suffering the highest level of losses in terms of local representation levels, as shown in Figure 1 above, is Monaghan, with that county’s total number of local representatives set to fall by as much as 72% arising from a combination of the loss of County Council seats and the abolition of that county’s Town Councils. Other counties that will be also experiencing similarly dramatic losses of local representation include Monaghan’s neighbour, Cavan, in addition to the aforementioned cases of Tipperary and Cork County.
|Seats/FG local reps ratio||Seats/FF local reps ratio|
|Cork City North Central||5.00||5.00|
|Cork City North East||4.00||4.00|
|Cork City North West||4.00||4.00|
|Cork City South Central||5.00||5.00|
|Cork City South East||2.33||7.00|
|Cork City South West||3.00||6.00|
|North Inner City||8.00||–|
|South Dublin County||5.00||13.33|
|Galway City Central||6.00||6.00|
|Galway City East||6.00||6.00|
|Galway City West||6.00||6.00|
|South and West Kerry||2.25||4.50|
|Borris in Ossory-Mountmellick||0.75||1.20|
|Limerick City East||2.00||–|
|Limerick City North||1.50||6.00|
|Limerick City West||1.75||3.50|
|Waterford City East||2.00||6.00|
|Waterford City South||6.00||–|
|Tramore-Waterford City West||1.20||3.00|
Indeed, as the table above shows, there are a number of electoral areas where the number of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail local representatives at present exceeds the number of seats that are being assigned to these areas at the next local elections (i.e those areas where the ratio of seats to current Fine Gael (or Fianna Fail) local representatives is less than 1.0 in the table above). A prime example in this regard is the West Cork electoral area, where Fine Gael’s current number of local representatives is almost twice the number of seats that will be assigned to this area at the next local elections, while the current number Fianna Fail local representatives in this area exceeds this number of seats by a level of 50%.
So what does all this data point to? It suggests that, while local elections are usually hotly contested in Ireland but especially in rural areas (as evident in the higher local election turnouts in such areas), the local elections of 2014 could well prove to be the most keenly contested such elections in the history of the state. The overall reduction in local representation – and the geographical expression of this – means that there will be far too many (and far far too many in some areas!) incumbents fighting for far too few seats in a number of these electoral areas, unless there are mass retirements on the part of local representatives in these areas. Given that their current local representative levels can even exceeded the seat levels for the new electoral areas in some of these constituencies, the candidate selection process for the larger parties (but particularly Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) could be just as hotly contested. Add in the further dimension of ambitious challengers within the larger parties and the knock-on effect of shifts in public support for the different parties that could see notable gains for parties that have been gaining traction in the opinion polls in recent months and the task facing the incumbents in trying to retain their seats in these areas can be seen to become ever more difficult in scope. These ambitious challengers may well sense blood in the water when faced with opposition tickets overcrowded with incumbents seeking to retain their seats and, in some cases, undermined by their parties’s declining support levels (as detected in national opinion polls). On present poll trends, a number of Fianna Fail’s group of local area representatives may be well placed to make gains, especially in those parts of the state where the party is currently weakly represented at the local authority level (Dublin and its immediate commuter belt, as well as some of the current City Council areas). Present poll trends would also point to significant gains on the part of Sinn Fein in these upcoming elections, as well as by strong independent candidates.
With 1,467 local representatives in the state at present and with only 949 seats being contested in next May’s City and County Council elections, the scene is set for a level of turnover in terms of local representation that will parallel, or even exceed, that of February 2011’s so-called “earthquake election”. At least 35.3% of the current number of local elected representatives will not hold seats on local authorities after next May’s elections. Add in the number of seats that will be won by challengers and the likely scenario is one where close to, or even over, half of the current group of local elected representatives in the state will no longer hold seats on local authorities come next year’s local electoral contests. Full many a political career will be destined to end in premature retirement from local politics, disappointment at their party’s candidate selection convention or ultimate failure at the ballot box come next May’s local elections.
While the larger constituency sizes (the overall increase in the average number of seats per local election constituency) may offer some potential for new candidates to make a breakthrough – and especially for new female candidates and candidates representing minority groups – this advantage may well be offset by the challenges posed by an electoral landscape crowded by a host of determined incumbents who will not surrender their seats without a determined fight.