Proportional Representation in Ireland - Proinsias Mac Aonghusa

The booklet "PR in Ireland" was originally published in 1959 as a series of six articles in the Irish Times. It gives a detailed history of, and an explanation of the mechanics of, Proportional Representation as it is used in Ireland. The full text of these articles is contained here.

Division or Unity

It is now over 40 years since P.R. was first seen in action in Ireland. In those years the electors have become used to it and today there is not a person in the country under the age of 63 who has voted here in the British "X" manner. Preferential voting is liked and understood by the great majority of the people, and the percentage of spoiled ballots is tiny. It is of interest to note that throughout the years the percentage of spoiled votes has steadily decreased; it was 3,66% in 1923. 1.6% in 1932, 1.2% in 1938, 1.04% in 1944 and 0.98% in 1948.

In one year only, as we have recorded previously, do we find that pattern broken. This was in 1937 when the referendum on the Constitution was held on the same day as the general election and the percentage of spoiled votes rose to 2.1 %. On the whole this compares very favourably with the situation in Britain, where the procedure is less complicated and the voter merely has to make the illiterate's mark in front of one name.

For Not Against
Those who vote in a P.R. election vote for candidates in the order of their choice, and not against them as with the other system. They indicate their preferences among the various candidates, so that if their first choice is not elected their vote is not wasted but can be handed on to their next choice. and so on. Alternatively, if their first choice has sufficient votes to get elected without their help, their votes are changed over to their second choice. In the ordinary way each elector will find that he has played a part in electing at least one candidate to Parliament-that one of "his" candidates has got in.

This situation contrasts vividly with that in large areas in the United Kingdom. In large areas in southern England a Labour man has not the slightest chance of securing election. Still very many thousands vote for Labour in these areas. All their votes are wasted, and none of them is ever likely to contribute to the election of a member. The Tories face a similar situation in many large industrial regions. Although they have thousands of active supporters in these areas they are always beaten by the overwhelming Socialist vote. Under proportional representation the proportion of Tories and Socialists elected might not differ greatly; but the M.P.s of both parties would he spread more evenly throughout the country.

In the 1923 election the Republicans received 288,307 votes, as against 847,247 for their rivals. Under the British system the de Valera party would have been wiped out electorally, and it is possible that many of its more militant members would have favoured a resumption of hostilities against the State. But, because of P.R., the party secured 44 seats and the others won 109 seats. This was a fair enough distribution, and it ensured that the Republicans would have some encouragement to try other means apart from the rifle and the bomb to achieve their aims.

Personal Choice
After a time people got the habit of voting, not merely for their own party candidates. but also for those who opposed their party but who, they thought, would make good members if their favourites did not succeed. This led to a breaking-down of the barriers of bitterness both inside and outside the Dáil, and brought about a feeling of understanding and sympathy for the other person's point of view. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that this feeling of respect for an opposite opinion to one's own is a fairly new thing in Irish political life and that it was missing for many years after the civil war. In all, Ireland's history for the past 35 years would have been far different, far more bitter and far more bloody, were it not for our unifying election system. In fact, proportional representation has brought us, political peace - a blessing which we may not appreciate as much as we should.

Nobody can state for certain what the representation of the three parties in Parliament will be if the people are persuaded to abolish our present system and revert to the British method. It might be that Fianna Fail would win 120 seats or more, leaving the opposition with a mere 20. Or it could happen that, by making a clever enough election pact, the present opposition parties could secure an overwhelming majority of seats, leaving a well-supported Fianna Fail party with a tiny minority of representatives. Whichever way it works out, one can be sure of one thing: that justice will not be done, that the result will not tally with the general verdict of the voters, that large sections of the community will be virtually disfranchised and that bitterness will ensue.

Uncontested Seats
It is unlikely that at the first contest under the British System there would be any uncontested seats. In spite of the fact that the party machines are usually able to find out what support they have in each street, in every village, and in every parish, all will wish to find out exactly how they stand in all divisions. In those constituencies where the result is a narrow victory for one group or another, or where a candidate gets in on a minority vote (say F.F. 6,134; F.G. 5,754; Labour 5,123) contests will, of course, again be held in the next general election. But what will happen in those areas where one party gains an overwhelming majority of the votes at the first election? Will all others lose heart and let the constituency go without a fight the next time? Will the position be the same as it is now in Northern Ireland, and as it was in the whole country before P.R. was introduced?

Party Rule
Apart from the evil of the uncontested seat, which the British system would tend to bring about in this country, the greatest defect it has is the fantastic power which it gives to party machines. Under it the party bosses can make or break members, can rule constituencies more or less directly and can have anyone they like elected in divisions under their control. This latter point was well put by Sir Leigh Mac Lachlan, a former Chief Agent of the Conservative Party, when he wrote: "It's the machine that puts them in; the party machine can win any election if it is good enough. It can even put in a beer glass." (Sunday Dispatch. Dec. 12th 1950.) This was confirmed for me by an official of the Ulster Unionist Party recently, who said that no matter whom the Unionists picked for certain constituencies he would get in, that his personality mattered not at all and that his personal record was rarely examined by the voters. The recent cases of Mr. Nigel Nicolson in Bournemouth and of Mr. Montgomery Hyde in Belfast show how the party organisation can break even a popular member.

The reason, of course, for this terrific power of the machine under the British system is that the party supporters must vote for any candidate the party chooses. The only alternative is to vote for his rival. who stands for a policy in which they do not believe. Their choice, then. is (a) to vote for their party's man, whom they do not want as their member; (b) to vote for his rival who preaches a doctrine repugnant to them; or (c) to abstain and allow themselves to he disfranchised. In the ordinary way the voter will vote for his party's choice, on the grounds that even if the candidate is poor, his party is good. The party machine wins again, and one more feeble member gets into Parliament. Moreover, the machine prefers the mediocre man to the intelligent and independent-minded member, for the former can easily be controlled whereas the latter will think for himself and may make decisions which conflict with the party line.

Trust in the Voter
The opposite to this is the situation brought about by P.R. No other system puts so little power in the hands of the machine and puts so much trust in the elector. As we know, with P.R. as with the other system, the party caucuses and the National Executives of the parties pick the candidates for the various constituencies. But with P.R. operating in constituencies returning from three to five members, the competing parties generally pick more than one candidate; Fianna Fail sometimes have as many candidates as there are vacancies. Two choices are given to the electors - one between the opposing parties and the other between the different candidates standing for the policy which the elector thinks is best. Commenting on this choice, which is unavailable under the British system, Dr. J. F. S. Ross, the well known authority on electoral methods, declares: " Obviously, therefore, it is better suited for use by a nation that has, so to speak, 'grown up' politically, that has developed a keen interest in and understanding of public affairs, than it is for a nation still in its political childhood." One wonders into which category this State is likely to fall.

In these articles we have covered the various aspects of proportional representation as they have operated in this country since 1919, and the effects which they have had on our people and on our politics. Taken as a whole they mean that the basis of our democracy is our fair voting system, which gives effect to the wishes of the people, guards against tyranny, gives us a representative Parliament and brings us an effective Government to which the great majority are willing to give allegiance.

Our voting system has served us well; we know it as we know no other system; through it we see democracy in action at the hustings and in Parliament; in its workings it eliminates the discontented, dangerous and sullen type of minority to which the British method gives rise; it has been moulded to our needs and it has fulfilled expectations. To change to the system which we have seen in action in Northern Ireland, in Britain and in South Africa could lead to political and parliamentary chaos. P.R. has brought us a great many blessings, and has brought about a certain unity rather than increased division. It would seem a great pity to give up these blessings now and throw
our country back into the melting pot.

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