Political Representation: A luxury for the good times and a way to save money in the bad?

Jennifer Kavanagh (7th May 2011)

This week Minister Hogan annouced plans to reduce the number of TDs in Dail Eireann:

“Minister Hogan said: “The new Government intends to lead by example and start change at the top. Irish politics needs to start delivering for the Irish people and this Government is determined to make real, tangible reforms which will make the political system leaner and more efficient for its citizens. As part of that agenda, the terms of reference for the Constituency Commission will be changed to provide for a reduced number of TDs.  A Constituency Commission is due to be established upon the publication of the 2011 Census preliminary results, which are due in June.  That Commission will report within three months of the publication of final census results in 2012.”[i]

Article 16.2 lays down the constitutionally acceptable represenation ratio as follows[ii]:

2. 1° Dáil Éireann shall be composed of members who represent constituencies determined by law.

2° The number of members shall from time to time be fixed by law, but the total number of members of Dáil Éireann shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population.

Basically one TD cannot represent more than 30,000 people and there cannot be less than three TDs returned per constituency. The ratio of TDs to member of the population will be reviewed after each census (16.2.3), a review will take place every twelve years (16.2.4) and the changes will take effect in the preceding Dail (16.2.4). It is also worth noting that the Constitution does not permit less than three TDs being returned from a constituency.

The current ratio is based on the results of the 2002 census where by the figure for the total population (at the time 3,917,203 people) was divided amongst the 166 available seats and this resulted in 1 TD to every 23,598 of the total population including children. This fact was submitted in evidence by Ms. Riona Ni Fhlanghaile Principal Officer of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the recent High Court case of Doherty v. Government of Ireland[iii]

The issue of casual vacanies, as in the Doherty case above and Dudley v. An Taoiseach[iv], has been the most litigated issue under the provisions of Article 16.2. However the rationale for this representation ratio was not addressed.

Constitutional Law theory accepts that the main reason behind its creation is that it will codeify and set out the rules and limitiation in a succinct and understandable form. One of the main limitiations on the power of Government is ensuring that there is a pluality of voices returned to the parliament in order to better represent the nation as whole.

This is not the first time that reform bodies have cast their eye over the issue of representation. In the Report of the Constitutional Review Group of 1996[v] it was recommended that there would be no change to the representation ratio. This position was echoed in the report of the Seventh Progress Report of the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution[vi].

However the 1996 Report did state that the issue of the representation ratio would have to be revisited if there was a decision taken to abolish the Seanad. The current Government has loudly signaled their intentions to hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. It is possible that this may turn into proposals to radically reform the Seanad but it would not be foolish to suggest that the days of the Seanad, as we know it, are numbered. The 1996 report states the “abolition of the Seanad could require an increase in Dáil membership”.

The Seventh Progress Report of 2002 acknowledges that it received submissions calling for a reduction in representation. It reasoned that the exisiting provisions under Article 16.2 allowed for considerable scope in reducing the numbers, they even went so far as to state that under the 1996 census it would have been possible to reduce the membership of Dail Eireann to 120 members.

However a word of caution on the reduction of members was sounded in the Final Report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution regarding Article 16 and the Electoral System for the Election of Members to Dáil Éireann[vii]. The question of minority represenation and gender quotas was a very topical issue in the last General Election. Recommendation 27 of the Report states that there should be no less than 4 TDs representing a constituency  unless a three seater constituency is necessary due to the geographic size. The report accepted that three seat constituencies make it harder for female and minority candidates to be elected to represent their communities. If the present Government proceeds with reducing the number of TDs then they may end up undermining their own attempts to increase such representation.

Political reform of the insitutions of governance is a worthy objective if it allows for the views of the citizens to be better represented and achieve more efficient control of the running of the state. However if the changes are only a token gesture to those seeking reform but more relevant to cutting the state payroll for purely money saving measures then these proposals must be critically examined.

[i] Government to Reduce the number of TDs, Presidential Election Spending and Introduce New 6 Month Rule for Dáil Bye-Elections – Hogan,  Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, http://www.environ.ie/en/LocalGovernment/Voting/News/MainBody,26092,en.htm 07/05/2011

[ii] The entire constitution can be accessed here – http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/upload/publications/297.pdf

[iii] [2010] IEHC 369.

[iv] [1994] 2 ILRM 321

[v] The entire report can be accessed here -http://www.constitution.ie/reports/crg.pdf

[vi] The Progress Report can be accessed here – http://www.constitution.ie/reports/7th-Report-Parliament.pdf


12 thoughts on “Political Representation: A luxury for the good times and a way to save money in the bad?

  1. is this your conclusion at this time.

    Political reform of the insitutions of governance is a worthy objective if it allows for the views of the citizens to be better represented and achieve more effiecent control of the running of the state. However if the changes are only a token gesture to those seeking reform but more relevant to cutting the state payroll for purely money saving measures then these proposals must be critically examined.

    Political Representation: A luxury for the good times and a way to save money in the bad?

    seems, so, nobody round here willing to treat this issue seriously just dismiss it.

  2. For real institutional reform two issues have to be addressed:
    1. The caricature that is local government in Ireland. Currrently we have a mainly dysfunctional administartive unit, financially controlled by central government, administered by an unelected executive with a sop to democratic representation that probably does more damage to democracy than anything else.
    (I say that, both as a former member of two local authorities and a former officer of a local authority)
    2 The second issue is the elephant in the room. the impact of the EU, its institutions and its policy making process on democracy in member states.

  3. This announcement by Minister Hogan was, and is, entirely predicatble. Focusing on the size and composition of the Oireachtas (proposals on abolishing an Seanad are still out there) is pure displacment activity and a wonderful distraction. It will provide no end of entertainment and debate and ensure no attention is paid to what TDs do when they sit in the Dail. And I fully agree with Vincent Byrne. Reforming local government, in addition to the increased accountability and the efficiencies in service provision it would generate, would significantly reduce the messenger-boy burden on TDs and allow them to spend more time as legislators. And the EU is, indeed, the elephant in the room around which everyones seems to wish to tip-toe.

  4. The CSO population estimate for 2010 was 4.47 million (a big jump from 3.9 million). Assuming the actual census results bear this out then then there will have to be at the very minimum 149/150 TDs.

    I really think cutting TD numbers is gesture politics. I’d place this in the same category as Seanad abolition. Measures that will save a couple of million, will make no real difference to how we’re governed, if anything will make things slightly worse, and avoid tackling the real issues.

    I read somewhere that the cut in TD numbers might save 10 million a year. That averages out at roughly 2 euros per taxpayer per year. Very small beer in comparison to the various income levies, health insurance levies, proposed property and water charges running to hundreds each annually I already am or will be paying soon. Frankly I’d be far more concerned that good political structures are put in place for the future. Fair enough if 2 euros or even 10 euros can be shaved off my annual tax bill!! 🙂 But surely politicians can come up with meaningful reforms that have a better selling point than this?

    • Correction: cutting TD numbers will save me the princely sum of 5 euros a years (10million/2million taxpayers). I hate to get my sums wrong when dealing with such big numbers! 😉

  5. Phil Hogan is an old school politician and it’s interesting that the only effort to really reform has come from Labour ministers while FG ones seem to be more interested in the optics of press releases.

    If Hogan wants to save money then cut the salaries, pensions and expenses of all elected representatives at local and national level by 10-15%.

    If he is genuine about real reform (which I don’t think he is) then he needs to start at local government as well as at national level and meet in the middle.

    Wait and see when the Oireachtas publishes the expenses calimed by the new Dail for it’s first month or so and we’ll see that nothing has changed – I’ll pay close attention to the expenses claimed by the far left and right wing type TDs.

    The catch 22 is that the type of person who gets through the party machine (be it a large or small machine) is rarely the type who wants reform or wants to be transparent (a human failing I guess as most humans’ downfall is their own greed so if you get to a job with the potential to line your pockets, as a political job in Ireland offers, then it’s not unreasonable those who get there don’t want to miss out on their share of the goodies).

    We’re still waiting for Fine Gael to publish its party accounts which of course will be doctored so they reveal nothing. The new government made a big deal of announcing a ban on corporate donations but couldn’t quite bring itself to go the whole way so it’s allows personal donations and still allows a threshold – if the legal advice that you can’t prevent someone donating to a political aprty is true then you change the law or you lower the threshold to zero or a token €1 with a rule that the name of each person/firm etc who donated is published.

    We all know what reforms are needed – it’s not rocker science but the mystery is why the new government refuses to do what needs to be done – as it cannot be that it doesn’t understand this intellectually, the only answer is that it doesn’t want to push through real reform because people who have spent 30+ years as part of the problem that led Ireland to where it is now – even if they were in opposition – are unlikely to have changed their spots and become reformers now they are in government.

    They’ve been institutionalised/ touched with Stockholm Syndrone?

  6. I am extremely wary about this proposal. I have heard no compelling reason from the minister for reducing the number of TDs other than as a cost saving measure. If you were to follow that argument through to its logical conclusion you could end up arguing for just electing 15 cabinet ministers, ‘because TDs who aren’t in cabinet dont really do anything anyway’. I hope the Constituency Commission, when it is established, go for minimal changes. A move to 6 and 7 seater constituencies would be good in my view also – the smaller the district magnitude the less proportional the result.

  7. Noel Whelan, (Sat ITimes) “More to Power than Making Noises”. Simply shredded it. Pop in into the Green Wheely. Next!


  8. I welcome the Government decision to look at reducing the numbers of TDs. It remains to be seen what
    1) terms of reference are given to the Constituency Commission;
    2) the Government decides once the Commission rhas issued its report.

    I agree entirely with Jennifer’s conclusion
    “Political reform of the insitutions of governance is a worthy objective if it allows for the views of the citizens to be better represented and achieve more efficient control of the running of the state. However if the changes are only a token gesture to those seeking reform but more relevant to cutting the state payroll for purely money saving measures then these proposals must be critically examined.”

    As a political reform, reducing the number of TDs (or abolishing the Senate) will do nothing to achieve more efficient control of the state. See for example, Muiris MacCarthaigh’s recent comment “it is clear that the Irish parliament tends not to be one which stands out as a strong legislature in international comparisons, and it is difficult to escape its dominant characterisation as a parliament substantially subjected to the prerogative of the executive” (Maurice Manning and Muiris MacCarthaigh eds. The Houses of the Oireachtas – Parliament in Ireland IPA 2010)

    In this same essay, there is a very informative table that ranks Ireland 29th (of 31 states) in a comparison of national legislatures according to a number of criteria relating to the structures, resources and time spent debating their budgets. This table also shows that four smaller countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, New Zealand) in the top five of the OECD countries.

    This table is based on work published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in 2009 on Sustainable Government Indicators for the period 2005-2007 (http://www.sgi-network.org/).

    Given what has happened here during the past three years, it is clear that our way of governing ourselves lacks sustainability.

    However, I am puzzled by Jennifer’s comment“…One of the main limitations on the power of Government is ensuring that there is a plurality of voices returned to the parliament in order to better represent the nation as whole.”

    If it is a statement of constitutional theory, it does not seem helpful in terms of reforming our way of governing ourselves. If it is a judgement on how our government works, it leaves a lot to be desired.
    Our constitution is very clear on the sources of our Government’s power and how it is structured.
    We the people are the source of power, as laid down in Article 6
    “1. All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.
    2. These powers of government are exercisable only by or on the authority of the organs of State established by this Constitution.”

    Through elections, we delegate this power to the President, TDs and Senators.
    More importantly, the TDs then nominate the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach then nominates no less than 6 and no more than 14 others to be members of the Government ie. Cabinet Ministers, all but of whom must be TDs.

    In our system, the Government must be in total control of the Dáil or else it ceases to be the Government. Apart from this possibility, the Dáil can do little or nothing to limit the power Government. Our Government follows the UK practice of Government being in and of parliament.

    No plurality of voices in the Dáil, no matter how vocal or diverse, changes this basic reality of our way of governing ourselves.

    While I favour reducing the number of TDs, I do not regard it as necessary to hold a referendum to do so. Raising this possibility brings Veronica’s observation to mind “the proposal to abolish the Seanad respresents posturing by the political parties in response to public anger at the manifest failure of our political institutions and the mediocrity, with few exceptions, of our political class.”

    Reducing the number of TDs is among the measures that I proposed in a personal submission to the Joint Oireachtas committee on the constitution in 1996, to Colm McCarthy’s Bord Snip Nua and also in my contribution to the Dublin City Business Association 10 point manifesto Towards a Second Republic here http://www.dcba.ie/static/doclib/Towards_a_Second_Republic.pdf (see p. 77)
    It is one of the five measures that I proposed for immediate implementation to get us on our way to political and institutional reform.

    I also proposed that we need to go beyond that to design, implement and use a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful, whether they be public or private, elected or appointed in order to ;
    •ensure competence and moderation in government
    •overcome inertia at government level, both national and local;
    so that our constitution is a framework for a free government that limits, restrains and allows for the exercise of political power, which we as citizens of a Republic own.

    Madison, one of those who drew up the US constitution over two hundred years ago, put the design of democratic government institutions as
    follows —
    “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: first you must enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, you must oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

    We citizens must find “incentives” to persuade the incumbents that we want far reaching political and institutional reform, even if it not included in the EU-ECB-IMF agreements!

    • The Constitution places limits on the powers of Government. (See the general idea behind the introduction to Chubb’s “The Constitution and Constitutional Change in Ireland”). The Government must respect the representation ratio as laid down in the Constitution – thereby being a limitation on the power of Government to change the number of Dáil Deputies. Therefore the current ratio promotes plurality in the chamber by giving the population the right to choose their representatives in the Chamber for their constituency.

      • “The Constitution places limits on the powers of Government.”

        Yes, of course.

        re. Representation/Dáil Deputies.
        Yes, of course, the Government must respect the current limit.

        In voting for TDs (regardless of how many), the key questions are who/what we are voting for ie.
        1. people who will be good for the constituency and even better at it, if they become Ministers;
        2. people who can develop and apply checks/balances on the powerful – public and private, elected and appointed;
        3. people with skill and competence in directing/managing the resources of the state to bring about public happiness.

        In addition to that, it is long overdue that we, citizens, recognise that the constitutional limits on Government in our 1937 constitution are few and difficult to put into practice, without dismissing the Government.
        Consider what Basil Chubb said of TDs nearly 30 years ago of TDs
        “In carrying out its functions of making the laws, as also in making the government
        behave, the Oireachtas is sadly ineffective, a fact increasingly acknowledged by
        politicians themselves…The Oireachtas is deficient on three counts. First, its
        procedures and techniques are archaic and ineffective. Second, the staff and
        facilities available to members are meagre. Third, the education and experience
        of many members and the view they have of their job ill equip them to make the
        kind of enquiries that are necessary or to appreciate the kinds of data that ought
        to be made available in order to judge performance. Neither the methods
        employed nor the personnel involved, whether representative or professional, are
        adequate to appraise large programmes of public expenditure for an ever
        increasing range of economic and social objectives, including long-term capital
        programmes and extensive subsidies”
        Chubb, Basil. The Government and Politics of Ireland. London: Longman, 1982.

        or what Michael McDowell said ~25 years about becoming a TD
        “The experience of being elected to Dáil Éireann for the first time is quite a shock
        to the system and, I suppose, every new TD is prepared to some extent for that
        shock…My judgement put succinctly is this: Dáil Éireann which is the very heart
        of democracy is at heart in failure. Dáil Éireann isn’t working; it is failing the
        people. As a legislature, it is hopelessly inadequate and slow; as a forum for
        debate it is irrelevant in many respects; as an organ of the popular will, it is
        atrophied and increasingly non-functioning.”

        or what Arthur Morgan was reported as having said about 5 months ago
        ““I found the Dáil to be restrictive and old-fashioned.” Morgan (54) criticises
        procedures where he cannot raise issues on the Order of Business when the Dáil’s
        agenda for the day is set. “The Ceann Comhairle keeps saying ‘Deputy Morgan,
        there are long-standing traditions’.” “Long-standing traditions have us where
        we are at Garvaghy Road,” he says, referring to the Drumcree controversy about
        a loyalist parade route. Calling for radical reform of Dáil procedures, he
        believes there should be a three-hour period each day starting at 7.30am, where a
        Minister would answer questions for at least 15 minutes “in relation to whatever
        their real responsibility is” on issues raised by individual TDs….He questions
        whether TDs should be in the job “if anyone is in their beds beyond what is a
        reasonable hour of 7.30”….He is outraged by the National Roads Authority and
        the Health Service Executive, which he says are not accountable to the Dáil….. He wants to shake off the shackles of the Dáil and “get rid of that mentality – its
        bureaucracy . . . and lack of accountability”.
        reported Irish Times 30 December 2010

        The plurality of voices in this selection did not have much effect on developing constitutional or any other limits on the exercise of power.
        In fact, Michael McDowell was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when the Government removed limits on Government by restricting the 1997 Freedom of Information Act.

        We need to consider, design and explain limits on Government power over the TDs in the Dáil, given the clear weaknesses expressed in the three quotes above.

        As somebody once put it…”I am all in favour of tradition. That is why I like starting new ones.”

        Given the extent of the current failure of our way of governing ourselves, it is good to see various groups continuing to work on options for political and institutional reform – which I take as being the driving force behind this forum.

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