The purpose of the Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Bill 2017 is to provide for the number of Members of Dáil Éireann and for the revision of constituencies and the number of Members to be elected for such constituencies, in light of the results of census 2016. It also provides for an amendment to the Electoral Act 1997. In broad terms, the Bill we are debating today provides for the total number of Members of Dáil Éireann to be 160 and for the number of constituencies to be 39 in accordance with the recommendations in the Constituency Commission report 2017.
In debating and deciding upon this Bill, the Oireachtas will meet its constitutional obligation to review and revise constituencies with due regard to population change and its distribution around the country. To support the Oireachtas in this task, the Electoral Act 1997 provides for the establishment of an independent Constituency Commission and for that commission to report to the Ceann Comhairle on the conclusion of its work. The most recent commission reported to the Ceann Comhairle on 27 June 2017. Since the report's publication, the Government has given due consideration to the recommendations of the commission and, in accordance with accepted practice since 1980, has agreed to implement them in full and without change. The Bill now before this House provides for this.
The Constitution sets out clearly and distinctly the overarching requirements that apply to the membership of Dáil Éireann. In addition, and complementary to these constitutional provisions, Part II of the Electoral Act 1997 provides for a constituency review following each census of population and establishes, among other things, the terms of reference of a Constituency Commission.
By way of summary, the following constitutional provisions are of particular note. Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution provides: "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." Article 16.2.3° provides: "The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country." Finally, Article 16.2.4° provides: "The Oireachtas shall revise the constituencies at least once in every twelve years, with due regard to changes in distribution of the population."
In effect, these constitutional provisions require that Dáil constituencies be revised whenever population change, as ascertained in a census, leads to population to Member ratios in individual constituencies that are significantly out of line with the national average or the limits set in the Constitution of one Member to every 20,000 to 30,000 of population. It has been four years since Dáil constituencies were last revised, by way of the Electoral (Amendment) (Dáil Constituencies) Act 2013 which gave legal effect to the recommendations in the Constituency Commission report 2012, which was, in turn, completed following census 2011.
The results of census 2016 show a 3.8% population increase on the 2011 population, distributed unevenly across the country but largely on its eastern seaboard. The population is such now that the ratio of Members to population, at 30,138, is outside the constitutional limit of one to 30,000. While this does not make the composition of the Thirty-first Dáil unconstitutional, since it was formed on the basis of total numbers set with reference to census 2011, there is now an imperative to legislate for revised Dáil constituencies to bring them into line with the requirements of Article 16.2° of the Constitution in good time for the next general election. These constitutional provisions were considered by the courts in two cases in 1961 - the High Court case of John O'Donovan v. the Attorney General, and the Supreme Court reference case relating to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 1961. They were considered again in the High Court case taken by Deputies McGrath and Murphy in 2007 where it was argued that the constituencies on which the general election was being fought at that time did not comply with the requirements in Article 16° of the Constitution.
In his judgment of 2007 in the latter case, Mr. Justice Clarke stated that he was satisfied that there is an urgent burden on the Oireachtas to review constituencies following a census. In effect, he concluded that the Oireachtas must act promptly to bring constituencies in line with population once a census reveals significant population change. The progression of the proposed Bill will now allow the Oireachtas to so act on this occasion.
Part II of the Electoral Act 1997 provides for the review of Dáil and European constituencies by an independent Constituency Commission, upon the publication of the census report setting out the preliminary census results. The terms of reference of the commission are specified in the Act. These provisions are, of course, subordinate to the constitutional requirements set out in Article 16.2°. Following publication of the preliminary census results on 14 July 2016, a Constituency Commission was established to begin work on the review of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies and to report with recommendations. This was the fifth commission established under the 1997 Act. It was also the second statutory commission established with authority to commence work upon the publication of preliminary census results. This provision was in response to the High Court case taken by Deputies McGrath and Murphy in 2007, to which I referred earlier.
The final results for census 2016 were published on 6 April 2017 with the Constituency Commission report 2017 subsequently finalised and presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 27 June 2017; the report was also laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on that date. The Constituency Commission recommended that the number of Members of Dáil Éireann should be 160. This figure gives a ratio of one Member to every 29,762 of population which is quite close to the constitutional limit of one to every 30,000. While this is the highest ever ratio in the State, it is within the constitutional limit and, in recommending this figure, the Constituency Commission had regard to the maximum number permitted under section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997.
The commission also recommended that there should be 39 constituencies, of which 18 constituencies were recommended to remain unchanged from the previous review completed in 2011. The report by the Central Statistics Office on the final results of census 2016 showed the total population in the State as 4,761,865, an increase of 173,613 people or a rise of 3.8% in the population since April 2011, with the majority of that change located on the eastern side of the country. The commission had three months after the publication of those results within which to complete its work and report to the Ceann Comhairle with its recommendations. The report of the Constituency Commission was presented to the Ceann Comhairle on 27 June 2017 and was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the same date. In addition, copies were circulated to Members and the report was published on the website of the Constituency Commission. By now I am sure all Senators are familiar with its content and its recommendations. However, for the information of Senators and for the record of the House, I will outline the main features of the Commission's report in relation to Dáil and European constituencies.
The Commission recommends that the number of Members of Dáil Éireann should be 160; this is the maximum number permitted under section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 and provides a Member to population ratio of 1:29,762.
The commission recommended that there be 13 five-seat constituencies, up from the current 11, 17 four-seat constituencies, which is one more than at present, and nine three-seat constituencies, which is four fewer than now. This gives a total of 39 constituencies, one fewer than at present.
The commission recommended that 18 constituencies remain unchanged. These are, as listed in the commission's report, Dublin Bay South, Dublin Fingal, Dublin South-Central, Dublin Mid-West, Dublin South-West, Dublin West, Meath West, Louth, Longford-Westmeath, Donegal, Cork East, Cork North-Central, Cork North-West, Cork South-Central, Cork South-West, Kerry, Waterford and Wexford.
Prior to arriving at its recommendations, the commission reported that it had given consideration to the possibilities of adhering to county boundaries in the drawing up of new constituency boundaries. However, the analysis showed that, in many cases, breaches to county boundaries would be unavoidable, having regard to the uneven distribution of population and the constitutional requirement in Article 16.2 that the ratio of population to the number of Members should, as far as practicable, be the same throughout the country. In particular, the constitutional requirements could not be fully met at the two points in the range - 159 and 160 Members - available to the commission under its terms of reference by adhering to county boundaries alone.
To minimise the number of breaches to county boundaries, the commission adhered to the views and practice of previous commissions in joining two entire counties into a single constituency in respect of Carlow–Kilkenny, Sligo–Leitrim and Cavan-Monaghan. Nevertheless, new breaches of county boundaries were considered necessary in Laois, Meath, Offaly, Roscommon and Tipperary while some breaches already in place by virtue of the existing Dáil constituencies have been retained. Overall, the commission reported that it was satisfied, in light of the constitutional requirements and its terms of reference, that the recommended constituencies met the constitutional requirements from the point of view of equality of representation.
The commission recommends changes to constituencies in a number of areas. Dublin Central should become a four-seat constituency, with four electoral divisions totalling 12,394 people transferred in from Dublin North-West and one electoral division with a population of 5,064 transferred in from Dublin Bay North. Dún Laoghaire should be revised to include part of the electoral division of Glencullen - population 1,535 - from Dublin Rathdown. This would improve the balance between the variances in these two constituencies and comprise the entire administrative area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. Cavan-Monaghan should be revised to include the 36 electoral divisions, with a population of 13,150, of County Cavan that are currently in the existing Sligo–Leitrim constituency and seven electoral divisions, with a population of 3,973, to be transferred from Meath East. This ensures that all of County Cavan will be included in the new Cavan-Monaghan constituency, which will become a five-seater.
Sligo–Leitrim should have 18 electoral divisions, with a population of 7,806, transferred in from the north of County Roscommon around Boyle and west of Carrick-on-Shannon from the Roscommon-Galway constituency. Roscommon-Galway should receive the transfer of 8,650 people from Galway East while Galway East itself is to be revised to include an additional population of 4,547 from Galway West. The Mayo constituency is recommended to receive the transfer of 4,893 people from that part of County Mayo that is located in the existing Galway West constituency. This reduces the size of the county boundary breach in Mayo.
Clare is to be revised to include the electoral division of Ballyglass, with a population of 5,994, that is currently in the Limerick City constituency. This will restore the county boundary of Clare. The Tipperary constituency is to receive the transfer of 10,847 people from that part of Tipperary that is currently in the existing Offaly constituency. This will restore the county boundary in that part of Tipperary. However, a transfer of 4,375 people from three electoral divisions in Tipperary to Limerick City is recommended to avoid a high variance in the population-to-Member ratio in the Tipperary constituency. This will create a new county boundary breach in that area. Limerick County is recommended to receive the transfer of 2,008 people from Limerick City to address the high variance in the Limerick County area and to better balance the ratios between the two constituencies.
Laois and Offaly are recommended to become a single five-seat constituency similar to the arrangements that were in place from 1923 to 2013. However, to avoid a high variance, a transfer of 11,854 people will need to transfer to the Kildare South constituency. Kildare South is to become a four-seat constituency with the transfer in of the 7,892 people from that part of Kildare that is currently in the existing Laois constituency and a further 3,226 from the constituency of Kildare North. These transfers will ensure that there is no longer a breach in the Kildare county boundary. Carlow-Kilkenny is recommended to receive the transfer of the eight electoral divisions, with a population of 4,501, in Carlow that are currently located in the existing Wicklow constituency. This will eliminate the breach of the Carlow county boundary and will ensure that all of that county is now in the same constituency for the first time in 20 years.
The commission was also required to report on the constituencies for the election of Members to the European Parliament. In its report, it recommended maintaining the existing arrangement of constituencies for the election of Ireland's 11 MEPs. Therefore, I will not be tabling any amendment to the Third Schedule of the European Parliament Elections Act 1997, in which the constituencies for European Parliament elections and the number of Members to be elected for each constituency are specified. Should the number of Members to be elected from Ireland change before the next elections to the European Parliament in June 2019, section 5(1A) of the Electoral Act 1997 provides that a committee can be established to make a report in respect of European Parliament constituencies. This was done in 2013.
I will now outline the main provisions of this Bill. The Bill generally mirrors previous Bills providing for the revision of Dáil constituencies following a census of population. Section 1 provides for the definition of "Minister" and for particular references in the Schedule of the Bill. It is in the Schedule that the geography, as it were, of each constituency is described or specified.
Section 2 provides that, once the Bill is passed, there will be 160 Members in the next following Dáil, that is, the Dáil elected after the dissolution of the current Dáil. Section 3 provides for the 160 Members to represent the constituencies specified in the Schedule. There will be 39 constituencies, of which 13 will be five-seaters, 17 will be four-seaters and nine will be three-seaters. Section 4 provides that each constituency shall return the number of Members specified in respect of it in the Schedule.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for the total number of Members of the Dáil to be no less than 166 and no more than 172 following the next review of Dáil constituencies. That would be due after census 2021. One hundred and sixty is the maximum number that the Constituency Commission could recommend and that is what is provided for in this Bill. Having regard to projected increases in the population, it is likely that the limit of 160 Members that is provided for in the Electoral Act 1997 would not provide for the total number of Members to be within the constitutional limits at the next constituency review after census 2021.
Section 6 provides for the 2013 Act to be repealed on the dissolution of Dáil Éireann that next occurs after the passing of this Act. This effectively means that the existing constituencies will continue in force until the next general election. For example, the constituencies in the 2013 Act will be in force for any referendum and the presidential election to be held in 2018 or for any Dáil by-election held unless there is a general election in the interim.
Section 7 is a standard provision for the Short Title and collective citation.
The Bill continues the long-established practice of implementing the recommendations of independent constituency commissions in full and without amendment, which has been an important factor in supporting the independence of the review process. While it is a matter for the Oireachtas to revise the constituencies, this practice was upheld in the Dáil when the Bill passed All Stages last Tuesday. I look forward to the debate on the Bill and commend it to the House.