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.

Elections and Governments

Proportional representation's alleged inability to give strong and stable government to the country over the past 40 years or so has been used as an argument against the Irish voting system. It has been stated that the system was responsible for a large number of elections, and that on a number of occasions, because of the indecisive results obtained, Governments had to call further elections to get a positive result. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that in nearly 40 years there have been only three Prime Ministers in the State, that the present Government has the largest majority in the House that any party has had since the days when Mr. de Valera and his followers were abstentionists, and that to have frequent elections is not necessarily a bad thing, the charge against the system is worth examining.

No fewer than 14 general elections have been held in the State since 1922, and, of course. each one of them was held on P.R. principles. The claim is that the electoral System was responsible for the frequency of elections, that under the British system our Government" would have had longer lives, and that it would not have been necessary to appeal to the electorate at such relatively short intervals. In fact, during that same period there were 10 general elections in the United Kingdom. Moreover, no election at all took place there between 1935 and 1945, because of the war, and it is not unreasonable to assume that were it not for this long interval, two, or possibly three, more elections would have been held. Thus, there has been very little difference between the frequency of elections under the relative majority system and under proportional representation principles
At the same time many elections did take place in this country, and it is necessary to study them and to state why the various Governments decided to dissolve the Dáil at various times.

The Pact Election of June. 1922, has already been mentioned in a previous article in this series. This election was held under the provisions of the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act of 1922. So as to avoid a split which might have serious repercussions throughout the country, Collins and de Valera came to an agreement by which a national coalition of candidates, both pro- and anti-Treaty men would stand for election, and try to keep the proportion of followers of Collins and of de Valera the same in the Third Dáil as it had been in the second. Collins repudiated the Pact before Election Day, other candidates apart from the Panel ones sought election, and the election itself was punctuated with incidents which brought no credit to the country. Personation was carried to fantastic lengths and intimidation was the order of the day. In spite of the fact that the anti-Treatyites were foremost in the field of intimidation and threats they lost the election badly, and Collins' party took over the Government. The defeated Republican party refused to co-operate with the Government, declined to take its seats in Parliament and began a five-year period of abstention.

Ten Months
This Government lasted about 10 months. It had a sufficient majority to carry on with, but it felt that it needed a mandate from the people to carry out its future policy and also needed the people's verdict on its actions in the civil war. Cumann na nGaedheal, as the Government party had begun to call itself, emerged as the largest party following the election of August, 1923, and, since the Republicans still refused to enter Parliament, had a large overall majority in the House. The Fourth Dáil lasted three years and eight months, four years being its legal life, and elections were held in June 1927.

The Government’s position was considerably weakened at this election. For various reasons it had lost support to Labour, to the newly formed National League and to Fianna Fail, and it found itself in a very difficult position. Only 47 deputies out of a total of 153 were members of Cumann na nGaedheal but it was helped by the Farmers and by some Independents and so it was able to form a Government. It had lost more than 175,000 votes since the previous election, largely because of its dictatorial methods, the arrogance of its Ministers and its failure to bring about the Utopia which all too many imagined would come with independence.

Enter F.F.
This semi-coalition Government lasted two months. At the best of times it was a very shaky administration, but two important events brought about its inevitable collapse even sooner than was expected. A month after the election the Vice President, Kevin O'Higgins, was assassinated by unknown gunmen. As a result of the assassination, President Cosgrave introduced an Electoral Amendment Bill, to compel all candidates to swear an affidavit that if elected to the Dáil they would take the Oath of Allegiance. Because of this move the abstentionist Fianna Fail deputies took the oath (which they said they regarded as "an empty formula") on August 12th. Immediately they came into the House the Labour leader, Mr. Thomas Johnston, moved a vote of no confidence in the Government, and on a division the Government was saved from defeat only by the casting vote of the Speaker, Mr. Michael Hayes.

In a bitter election fought the following month, the Government party was returned with an increased number of seats, and again with the help of the Farmers and some Independents, formed an administration. This Government lasted four years and three months. It was replaced in February, 1932, by a Fianna Fail Cabinet which secured office with the help of Labour. It could have lasted the whole five-year period, but it was decided that, in view of the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress and the Imperial Economic Conference, it would be better to get the elections over, and have a new Government installed in office in plenty of time.

New Constitution
The Fianna Fail Government did not suffer any defeat in the Dáil, but, eager for more power and for a majority without the help of Labour, it dissolved the Dáil in mid-winter, 1933, and held an election on January 24th. The Government had lasted a mere 10 months. It received an over-all majority in the 1933 election, and the new administration lasted four years and four months'. Once again there was little reason for the Dáil to be dissolved before the end of the five-year period, but, since a new Constitution had been prepared and accepted by the Dáil and needed the assent of the electorate to make it law and to abolish the original Constitution, the Government decided to hold a general election on the same day as the referendum.

This tended to confuse electors, and it is interesting to note that the percentage of spoiled votes (2.1 %) at this election was double that at the previous contest. The new Constitution was narrowly accepted by the people, and the Fianna Fail Party went back to the House with 69 deputies-exactly 50% of the total membership of the Dáil. Labour again helped F.F., but was forced to withdraw its help because of the Government's attitude to Civil Service arbitration in May, 1938. The Dáil was dissolved, the Government having lasted 10 months, and elections were called for June. It is not unreasonable to believe that, had Fianna Fail kept to its election programme and had not gone out of its way to antagonise its Labour supporters, it could have ruled without difficulty for the full legal period. However, it was again unsatisfied with dependence on Labour, and in the election of 1938 it sought and received an over-all majority. The new administration lasted a full five years. In spite of the fact that the Opposition was willing to forgo an election in 1943 because of the war, the Dáil was dissolved and an election was held in June.

Fianna Fail lost 10 seats at this election, and it was returned to the House with 67 deputies as against 71 for the combined opposition. But the opposition failed to unite and Mr. de Valera once more became Taoiseach. Having been defeated on the controversial Transport Bill in 1944, 11 months after the 1943 election, Fianna Fail once again called a new election. This time it won an overall majority and received a mandate to rule until 1949. An election was called, however, on February l8th, 1948, 18 months before it was due, in spite of the fact that the Government had a fine majority in the House. Fianna Fail had been defeated in two by-elections by the newly founded Clann na Poblachta some months before, and it appears that the Government was anxious to challenge the new party before it had time to form itself into a proper fighting machine.

The Government Party lost eight seats and the combined opposition was returned with 79 deputies as opposed to Fianna Fáil’s 68.

An Inter-party Government was formed which lasted three years and two months. It came to an end following differences between the Minister for Agriculture and some farming deputies, and also as a result of trouble between the Minister for Health and his colleagues and the Catholic Hierarchy concerning the introduction of a no-means-test Mother and Child scheme.

Fianna Fail was returned to power in the election of May 1951 and remained in office for three years when, in spite of the fact that it had suffered no defeat in the House and that its Independent supporters were still loyal, it dissolved the Dáil and called an election. This election resulted in another defeat for Mr. de Valera and a Coalition Government comprising Fine Gael, Labour and Clann na Talmhan Ministers was set up.

Owing to the withdrawal of support from the Government by Mr. Sean Mac Bride’s Republican party, as a result of the administration's attitude to the I.R.A., Mr. Costello went to the country on March 6th, 1957, and made a half-hearted attempt to secure a further mandate for his Government. In fact, Mr. de Valera's group was returned with the best majority it had ever received, and it became the "strongest" Government ever seen in the State.

Greed for Power
In all, it will be seen from the facts stated above that a number of elections need not have taken place at all, and that, at the most, only two elections-August 1927, and May, 1944-were held as a direct result of indecisive verdicts given by the electorate at the preceding contests. Greed for extra power seems to have been the usual motive, and the record does not show that the extra majorities gained at any second elections resulted in increased activity on behalf of the country by the Government. In anything the opposite was the case. Those who care to examine the claims made on behalf of the British system as a means of obtaining decisive results at all times will find that the United Kingdom had elections in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1929, 1931, 1935, 1945, 1950, 1951 and 1955.

The only conclusion to be drawn from these facts and figures is that the method of election has little or nothing to do with the frequency of elections or with the decisiveness of the people's verdict on polling day. In common with most arguments against proportional representation, the accusation that it tends to bring about weak and unstable government proves false.

Indeed, in a sense, the surprising thing is that in a country which has gained its freedom only in the past 40 years, and whose history since then has been punctuated with shootings, murders, assassinations, internment camps, hunger strikes and hangings, elections have been so infrequent and Governments so strong. In spite of all that, comparative peace now reigns in the country. The credit for much of this tranquillity must go to proportional representation, since, as Dr. Luce said in his famous letter, "P.R. has been a healing force in our midst."