The need for this Bill arises because of the requirements of Article 16.2.4º of the Constitution which directs that the constituencies, as determined by law, shall be revised at least once in every 12 years. The Constitution came into operation on 29th December, 1937, so that the 12-year period began to run from that date and is now drawing to its close.
When asking the Dáil to give the Bill a Second Reading, I explained that it was desirable to implement the provisions of the Constitution in this regard without delay, because the enactment of the legislation to give effect to them would, of course, take some time, while the necessary administrative arrangements to give effect, in turn, to the Bill, would take still further time. Since then, the by-elections have taken place and the Taoiseach has announced that a general election is to be expected early in the coming year.
It is true that the Dáil did divide on the Bill, but the desirability of holding the forthcoming election on the basis of the revised constituencies was not questioned at any time during the debate, and indeed a general desire, I think, was evinced that if the election were to come early next year it should be fought on the basis of the new constituencies.
The urgency of the matter has, therefore, been greatly heightened, and I am asking the Seanad to help to meet the desire of the other House by making this Bill law as soon as possible.
The principles underlying the proposed rearrangement of constituencies have been made very clear both to the Dáil, in the explanatory memorandum circulated with the text of the Bill and during the discussions on its various stages, and to the public through articles and correspondence appearing in the Press. On the one hand, you have the requirements of the Constitution and, on the other, certain sensible rules dictated by common sense.
These rules, naturally, have not the firm binding force of the constitutional directives. As always in such matters, the claims of two or more practical criteria may conflict, and then, of course, one or more must yield to what wisdom tells us is the best. That should not blind us, however, to the fact that these rules are dictated by the political experience of our time and the physical, social and administrative features of the State, and as a body, therefore, are almost as unavoidable as the fixed rules of the Constitution, that is, provided we accept the need for a stable but democratic Government.
The first aspect of the scheme to which some criticism has been directed is the over-all number of Deputies fixed for the new Dáil. The constitutional requirement in this respect will be found in Clause 2, Article 16, which prescribes that the total number of members of Dáil Eireann shall from time to time be fixed by law in such a way that there will be not less than one member for every 30,000 of the population nor more than one for every 20,000.
The preliminary Report on the Census of Population, 1946, shows that the population of the State is 2,953,452. I should say, in connection with that figure, that in the preface to the report it is stated that this figure is provisional and subject to amendment; nevertheless I think it is sufficiently definite when a unit of 20,000 or 30,000 is concerned.
After full consideration, it was decided to apply the lower ratio of population in fixing the total membership of the Dáil and accordingly the membership of that House, as proposed in Section 2, was fixed at 147. This proposal would give the next Dáil nine members more than the existing House.
As I have said, this was one of the points on which criticism of the Bill was raised. It was argued that extra expense was involved, and that the increase would go to the city areas rather than to the country. I submit that the expense involved is inconsiderable and insignificant, having regard to the importance of the institution and of the principles involved. In any event, it is unavoidable if the people are to be granted their fundamental right to proper and fair representation.
The second argument against the increase rests, as I have sought to show the Dáil, on a misunderstanding of the true position. The movement of the population from the country to the cities and towns, as revealed in the census preliminary return, involves that on the present basis of representation the urban dwellers are under-represented relative to the rural population. The Constitution requires that the ratio between the number of members for a constituency and its population shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country.
If the size of the Dáil, therefore, were to be retained at its present level, or reduced, the only way to give effect to the Constitution would be to reduce the representation of the country districts, and that is a step that nobody, no matter how much he may have argued against the proposed increase, has felt able to advocate.
I suggest there is no sound reason why it should be advocated or why it should be resorted to. On the contrary, for the proper association of a Deputy with his constituents it is necessary that his constituency should be convenient in size, both from his point of view and the point of view of the electorate, and indeed this close association of a Deputy with his constituents is essential for the proper working of our system of representative democracy. It is difficult enough to secure this at present and to make it more difficult in the future would. I suggest, be indefensible. The maintenance, therefore, of the present rural representation in the Dáil is essential.
Once we accept that proposition, that is to say, that we cannot reduce the present rural representation, then, in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution and indeed in accordance with the letter of the Constitution, the need to increase the size of the Dáil from 138 to 147 members becomes inescapable.
The size of the new Dáil having been determined, the problem remained of dividing the country into constituencies so as to secure the best possible division.
The Constitution sets two limits in this respect: Firstly, the member to population ratio is to be uniform as far as practicable; secondly, the number of members to be returned for any constituency shall not be less than three. But, of course, when we come to determine what is practicable, there are certain other factors to be taken into consideration.
For instance, as I have already stressed, the area of the constituency must not be so large that effective representation of its inhabitants is not possible, nor should it be broken up by difficult physical features, so that sections of its population are virtually isolated from each other. And last, but not least, the constituency should be as administratively convenient as possible. Coming to apply this last-mentioned principle to the existing system of constituencies, the first thing that emerges is that administrative convenience can hardly be claimed for quite a number of them.
Take, for instance, the present constituencies of Wicklow and Wexford. Both of these include large portions of the administrative County of Carlow, so that the constituency which is at present called Carlow-Kildare only includes the remnant and not the whole of Carlow. Other examples of such like anomalies will be found in the constituencies called Meath-Westmeath, Roscommon, Athlone-Longford, Clare, Leitrim, Waterford, and so on.
The difficulties and confusion occasioned by these anomalies have moved several authorities in the administrative units concerned to protest against them and to request me by resolution to make the scheme of Dáil constituencies consistent with the existing local government administrative units. These resolutions have been kept in mind in formulating the new scheme. Therefore, the new constituencies have been delimited so as to be consistent, within reason and where practicable, with the boundaries of the administrative counties. As is well known, of course, an administrative county is the functional area of a county council. So far as the general public are concerned, there can be little doubt as to the constituency in which they are entitled to vote and so far as the officers are concerned there can be little difficulty in making the necessary arrangements to permit the taking of a poll in each constituency.
In some instances because of the number of the population involved and the size of the constituency it has been necessary to sub-divide an administrative county. In such cases the division has been made on the lines of well-defined smaller units and in rural areas invariably the district electoral division has been taken but the division has also been made in such a way that the population to member ratio will be reasonably uniform in the same county.
As an example, we could have the case of County Cork, which has been divided into four three-member constituencies, in each of which the ratio is practically identical, ranging from 19,503 in Cork South to 19,936 persons per member in Cork East. In applying this principle of uniformity within the county I did, however, advert to the position of existing constituencies and where these already existed and where they were convenient in size and there was no grave discrepancy between the population ratios, I did not consider it practicable or desirable to alter the boundaries of them merely in order to equalise the population ratios where the difference between them was not too great. In making the revision, every effort has been made to keep the ratio of members to population, so far as is practicable, uniform throughout the country but it will be understood, I am sure, that this uniformity cannot be more than partial because of the wide diversities in the area, population and geographical characteristics of the different counties. It is obvious that if the administrative county generally is to be taken as the fundamental unit, there must be variations of appreciable size between the constituencies found in one county and another. As against this, if the constituencies were to be defined upon a purely mathematical basis so that the ratio of members to population was identical everywhere, the artificial areas so created would be difficult to clearly identify and define, and I think a great deal of confusion would be caused in the minds of the electors and a great deal of difficulty would be experienced by the officers who would be called upon to make provision for and to supervise the polling at the general election. We would have this further consideration, that the people in the areas concerned would not be bound together by any of the affinities which constitute the essential feature of a real constituency. I am glad to say that the Dáil fully appreciated the wisdom of adhering to the boundary of the administrative county and in this respect at any rate the scheme met with uniform approval.
The final feature of the actual redistribution is the number of members allocated to each constituency. In preparing the revision my aim was to secure as many three-member units as possible and to avoid four-member units wherever I could. As I said before, other considerations also exist and have prevented exact uniformity of treatment in this respect as in others and, as a result, the Bill proposes that there should be 22 constituencies returning three members, nine returning four, and nine returning five, a total of 40 constituencies in all. In no case does a constituency return more than five members.
In the present scheme we have 34 constituencies in which 15 are three-member, 8 are four-member, 8 are five-member and three are seven-member. In the Dáil the point was made, although not pressed, that because the Bill created a large number of three-member constituencies and as few as possible constituencies of larger size, the principle of proportional representation was being abused and that even the Constitution itself was being violated. That position is, I think, not tenable. The single transferable vote and constituencies each returning not less than three members are what the Constitution stipulates, and these are amongst the electoral instruments which, should the Bill become law, will still be used in the general election. But we have got to remember that the Constitution has to be read as a whole and we have to have regard to the general purposes of the Constitution as well as the purpose of every Article of it.
The Constitution does more than merely set up a Legislature. It also sets up an executive organ, the Government, and for these two arms of the State to function properly something more than an Assembly which will be a mathematical replica of all shades of opinion in the country is necessary. That Assembly, besides being one of the legislative Houses, must be able to provide the country with a viable Government, one that will have the ability as well as the right to govern. If we want to receive a sharp lesson on this we have only to look at the present condition of some continental countries where the principle of proportionalism in the Legislature has been carried to extremes. Indeed, we do not have to go abroad for a lesson of this sort. Our own recent history shows that on no less than four occasions since 1923 general elections have failed to give a decisive result and there has had to be a further recourse to the people for a firm answer. The fact is that to enable it to act with authority, decision and leadership, a Government needs the support of an adequate majority in the Dáil. The alternative to such a Government is coalition, which is a shifting, vulnerable and unstable body. Indeed, it may mean not only one coalition but a succession of coalitions in which ultimately the authority and prestige even of the Dáil would be dissipated by reason of the unseemly proceedings which generally accompany the formation of coalitions. It is hoped, accordingly, that the new scheme of constituencies, with its emphasis upon the three-member constituency, will go far to secure a decisive result in favour of one or other of the parties seeking a mandate to govern.
It will not have the effect of the British system of single-member constituencies and the majority vote, but at least it should avoid the excesses of proportional representation while at the same time adequately safeguarding the representative character of the Dáil. The scheme, I readily admit, is not a perfect one, but it is the best that could have been devised, having regard to all the circumstances. It was not possible to dispense with all four-member units, and though the five-member constituencies, of which there are nine, are not wholly desirable either, I will concede that they are less objectionable than the four-member constituencies are.
The Dáil, although it formally divided on the Bill, paid a tacit tribute to it and to its fairness, in that very few amendments—and they related only to very minor adjustments—were moved. There was no amendment that proposed to alter in any serious way the boundaries of the constituencies which were included in the Schedule to the Bill and the only question of any gravity which did arise in the Dáil was the question as to whether one constituency rather than another should have four members instead of five. So far as possible—and particularly where the major principles of the measure were not in danger—I yielded to the movers of those amendments. Slight alterations were made, therefore, in Dublin City and County constituencies, at the suggestion of members of the Opposition, while a small adjustment was also unanimously accepted in the case of Kerry. Again, on an open vote of the House, Mayo, as I have hinted, ceded one seat to Wexford. The Seanad will, I hope, agree that I have shown that the new scheme of constituencies is fair and sound, based within the limits fixed by the Constitution and on the practical requirements of administration and of common sense.
Sections 3 and 4 make the allocation of Deputies among the several constituencies in accordance with the particulars set out in the First Schedule, which also defines the new constituencies. Section 5 deems the constituency of South Galway to be the constituency corresponding to East Galway for which the Ceann Comhairle was deemed to have been elected in the Revision of Constituencies Act, 1935. Section 6 is a necessary consequential provision, whereby the register of electors will indicate the existing and new constituencies. It also enables a new postal voters' list to be compiled in the case of a constituency not identical in name and area with an existing constituency.
Section 7 defines the returning officers. There is no real change here, but the sheriff for a county or county borough will be the returning officer where a sheriff is appointed. In Dublin County, however, the under-sheriff will continue to be returning officer for the area approximate to the area for which he is under-sheriff.
I may say that the Bill represents a consolidation of the law relating to the revision of constituencies. In the Second Schedule, the provision of the 1923 Electoral Act dealing with the division of the country into Dáil constituencies and the entire of the amending Act of 1935 are repealed; their provisions are, where necessary, reenacted in this Bill.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the passage of this Bill is very urgent, both from the point of view of the returning officers and of those who may have to make polling schemes for new areas and also from the point of view of the several Parties who may be seeking election under it. I would be very grateful, therefore, if the Seanad could see its way to give me this Stage and, if I am not asking too much, all the remaining Stages either to-day or tomorrow, so that the existing uncertainties in regard to the present position may be cleared up and so that all those who will have responsibilities under the Bill may be able to take appropriate measures to fulfil them.