I broadly agree with all that has been said by Senator Power. Her remarks afford me an opportunity to commend to the HouseWomen in Parliament: Ireland, 1918-2000, a book I had the privilege of producing in 2001 with Maedhbh McNamara, a senior research assistant in the Oireachtas. I commend it to those Members, particularly my male colleagues, who may not be au fait with the history of female Irish parliamentarians. Women in Parliament: Ireland, 1918-2000 traces the contribution women made and continue to make, from Countess Markievicz in 1918 to the present and one or two findings therein might help to support Senator Power’s argument. One conclusion arrived at is that electorally, the worst position to be in is that of a female challenger, while the best is that of a male incumbent. However, I query Senator Power’s point on the number of women who are involved in voluntary organisations, chambers of commerce and so on. While our conclusions also agree, there is a wide gap in the step-up from involvement in voluntary organisations to active political participation and women were reluctant to take that jump. This reluctance came about as a result of many factors, some to which Senator Power referred, regarding family commitments, the hours of work and the need to ensure the manner in which parliamentary duties are assigned was not inimical to the mothering nature of women to be with their families. I note strides have been made in Leinster House in this regard with the provision of crèches and so on. However, the most important factor of all was the lack of finance. In general, women getting involved in political activity found it was more difficult for them to raise money than it was for men.
While I do not wish to widen the argument on the gender issue, I will conclude this point with one statistic. When I started out on this odyssey, it was as a member of the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men in the Council of Europe, at which I was asked to be a rapporteur on women's participation in politics. This first exposed me to the Europe-wide experience of women across many societies and subsequently was the motivation for the book. In fact, there was a gap in the market here, in that there was no extant textbook that defined the contribution made by Irish women to the Irish political system. This led to the publication ofWomen in Parliament: Ireland, 1918-2000, which I am glad to note now is used as a school text. One conclusion to emerge about Scandinavia, which usually is held up as a model where participation rates for women are at 40% plus, is that despite or in spite of the advances women have made in the political culture and system within Sweden, a glass ceiling still exists in that country’s commercial life. Consequently, issues arise in this regard.
In the context of greater gender balance, although I understand Senator Power's motivation in tabling the amendment, which I support, the onus ultimately lies with political parties. While I understand the Government's motives in holding back money if a party fails to put a certain percentage of women on an election slate, I do not consider this to be the way forward. It is a matter for political parties to grasp. I acknowledge that they have failed miserably to so do in Ireland in recent decades, despite the excellent work done, for example, by Senator Bacik to highlight this issue since she became a Member in 2007 and to have established a corpus of female politicians who keep this issue on the agenda. Nevertheless, I still believe it is down to the political parties, their structures and the manner in which they do it. One need only consider what happened across the water. There is a 50:50 split in the National Assembly for Wales, primarily because it was insisted that women would stand in certain constituencies. In the wider United Kingdom, the Labour Party in 1997 insisted that as male MPs retired, female candidates be chosen to stand in those constituencies. Moreover, they primarily were constituencies the party could win because there is no point in putting up women to stand in constituencies or electoral areas in which they will not win, as often has been the case. My final point in this regard is that Europe has managed to be more advanced than we are here because list systems are used. However, women there also have been obliged to fight to get as high as possible a position on such lists. It is not sufficient to be simply placed on the list as they must secure as high a place as possible and this has been a challenge for many female politicians across Europe. I make this point in the wider context of the subject under discussion and the reasons Senator Power has advanced the view that there should be larger constituencies.
In the context of the commission, the terms of reference are inherently flawed. The Minister of State might agree with me and others regarding the maintenance and the sanctity of county boundaries. However, I am strongly of the opinion that when setting up a commission, use of terms of reference that refer to maintaining county boundaries in so far as is possible, has resulted in practical terms in the splitting of counties throughout the country. This goes back not to the commission but to 1921 and 1922. The Electoral Act 1923 replaced a system that was in itself flawed and Senator Cullinane referred to the constituency of Waterford-Tipperary East. Under the 1920 Act, county boundaries already had been breached with examples such as one to which I have referred previously, Mayo South-Roscommon South. However, in the Electoral Act 1923, our founding fathers replaced this system with a set of 28 territorial constituencies ranging in size from three to nine Members but returning to the county as the basic unit.
It was because the Electoral Act stated the county boundaries had to be maintained that it was possible to accommodate this position by extending the number of members per constituency and allowing a flexibility in the system between three Members and nine. Such flexibility has been absent from all subsequent constituency commissions, simply because the wording has allowed a commission to get under this requirement and to breach county boundaries on the pretext that its obligation to adhere to the constitutional requirement in respect of numbers means it must do so. This is the reason I have argued consistently throughout this debate that if there is to be a return to county boundaries, the constituency commission's terms of reference must be strengthened to include this proviso as it will not work otherwise.
In this context, it is interesting to consider the revision made in 1934. Incidentally, as I noted, it marked the beginning of the erosion of the maintenance of county boundaries by the then Minister for Local Government and Public Health, Mr. Seán T. O'Kelly. He moved away sharply, according to Professor Coakley's dissertation, from the principles of the 1923 Act. As for the combinations that emerged therefrom in respect of County Westmeath in particular, a Meath-Westmeath constituency was created that excluded a sizeable portion of the latter county. As people will say in footballing circles, Meath always is the dominant partner but it even happened in electoral terms in 1934. However, the commission did not finish whatever it was at in respect of Westmeath, because part of it was included, together with part of Roscommon, in a new constituency of Athlone-Longford. How the commission came up with that configuration beats me and there were many further instances like that. The next electoral Act was passed in 1947, followed by the 1959 Act. Thereafter, from 1979 onwards, a series of reports has been made.
I wish to discuss briefly the extremely important issue of the system of constituency commissions and the number of seats allocated per constituency as it affects my own county in Leitrim and other less populated counties. Arising from the shift of population to the east of the country, there will be a loss of Deputy representation west of a line drawn from Derry to Cork despite the best efforts of the constituency commission. This simply is because the shift in population has been so evident and something like two thirds of the country's population now lives in Leinster. However, I revert to the 1988 report, which was based on the results of the 1986 census but its terms of reference required a set of three and four seat constituencies, permitting five seats only "if necessary to avoid the breaching of county boundaries". However, this was perceived by the then Opposition as an attempt to undermine proportionality and to reinforce Fianna Fáil's position. Has anything ever changed? It depends on which side of the fence one is on. The Opposition threats to vote against any Bill based on this principle were sufficient to ensure that no such measure was brought forward because at the time, the argument was that it constituted an effort by Fianna Fáil to shore up its political majority. The same argument was used against Mr. James Tully when he introduced it, as well as against Mr. Kevin Boland, with clichés such as "Tullymandering" and "Bolanders" being used.
In the wake of the 1988 report, a new commission was appointed instead and its report became the basis of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 1990. The final stage of the depoliticisation of constituency boundary revision came with the Electoral Act 1997, to which this Bill refers. It placed the boundary commission on a statutory basis, thereby reducing the role of the Minister for the Environment. This is rather interesting in the context of Members' overall discussions on political accountability as up to the present day, the role of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is purely formal. All he or she does is establish a constituency commission with predetermined membership and terms of reference after which the five-person commission gets down to work. I note the commission is given certain terms of reference. These stated each constituency shall return three, four or five Members and that the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as is practicable. That was the get-out clause. The terms of reference that will be given to this commission will not change this. Even with all the rhetoric about maintaining county boundaries, the model is inherently flawed. It has replaced the founding fathers' aspirations, as contained in the 1923 Act, that irrespective of anything the county boundary determined the constituency boundary. They took the administrative territory — the county council area — as being the constituency and put together combinations such as Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon as a seven-seat constituency.
However, owing to the terms of reference given to electoral commissions since 1979 that has not been the case. I do not believe the reunification of Leitrim will happen under this one either. The Minister of State is correct in quoting the provisions in the 1937 Constitution. Successive Governments up to the establishment of the independent electoral commission were able to mess around with the counties and come up with some weird combinations.
Mr. Coakley's report concluded by stating it highlighted the difficulties that have confronted those charged with revising constituency boundaries in Ireland. In the early years of the State, politicians were not particularly preoccupied with this aspect of electoral law. Once the 1959 Electoral (Amendment) Act appeared to discriminate against Dublin and in favour of rural areas, Opposition anger spilled over into a court challenge. The High Court challenge that Mr. O'Donovan took on the grounds the Act was unconstitutional and subsequent insistence on a Deputy to population ratio as set down in the Constitution ruled out the practice for the future.
Mr. Coakley claimed, however, it also unintentionally provided a cloak for gerrymandering by encouraging, if not forcing, Governments to micromanage constituency boundaries. He believed that while the introduction of an independent constituency commission in 1980 depoliticised the process, boundaries have continued to be amended as vigorously as ever. By contrast, he pointed out, continental European proportional representation systems meet the principle of suffrage equality by periodic reallocation of seats to stable administrative districts, the equivalent of which in Ireland would be counties.
This could easily be applied to Ireland by a junior official in the Department, as I stated. There is a need for a fundamental change in the approach to constituency boundaries. The current model has become deeply ingrained in our political culture, however. Owing to the discredited gerrymandering of electoral boundaries by successive Governments in the eyes of the public, all political parties were quick and anxious to subscribe to a new model to determine electoral boundaries with minimal ministerial involvement. This was the basis of the establishment of the constituency commission. It was to prevent politicians manipulating the electoral system for their own ends.
Its inherent flaw, however, is in its terms of reference which will result in part of the Minister of State's county, the wonderful Westmeath, remaining in Meath while my county, Leitrim, will be split in two along Lough Allen. There must be a fundamental reappraisal of the model used by the constituency commission. We must refer to the founding fathers, as Senator Cullinane often does, the people who forged this State who realised the importance of county boundaries. As they were close to the people, they saw the confusion and anger caused by splitting counties for electoral purposes. That is why the 1923 Act stuck to the county model. Sadly, subsequent Governments have made changes which have resulted in the current model. We need to return to the county model and have five, six or even seven-seater constituencies. Ultimately, it will give fairer representation and avoids all the problems I outlined in my argument.