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.

Fair Shares for All

FOURTEEN general elections have been fought on P.R. principles in the Twenty-six Counties. The election to the first Dáil in 1918 was held under the British system and, although the general election of May, 1921, was in theory held under P.R. principles, it cannot be counted, since not even one seat was fought for. One hundred and twenty-four Sinn Feiners and four Unionists from Dublin University were returned unopposed in that election.

In all, each election has given a fair result, and the will of the people can be seen mirrored in the representation. However, as we will see later, the proportional effect was lessened by the two Electoral Acts introduced by Fianna Fáil, one in 1935 and the other in 1947. These Acts increased to an even greater extent than before that "bonus" which the Irish P.R. system gives to larger parties. Even so, of course, they had not the effect of giving the winning party the fantastically high "bonus" which it often receive, under the British system.

The so-called Pact election was fought in June, 1922. Thirty-four Panel candidates and four Unionists were returned unopposed in seven ordinary constituencies and in Trinity College. In spite of intimidation, candidates who disliked the idea of Collins and de Valera sharing out the country between them stood in the other constituencies, and so elections of a sort were held throughout the greater part of the country. Representatives of Labour, of the Farmers and Independents were nominated in 20 areas, and because of P.R. succeeded in forcing contests in most counties. For example, one Labour candidate nominated in Co. Galway forced an election on the whole county, whereas otherwise the electorate would not have had any chance to voice an opinion.

Minorities Had a Voice
It matters very little now that the election, as far as full freedom of choice went, was practically a farce. What matters is that, because of P.R. minorities who had something more to think about than the niceties of a Republic, a Document Number-2 State or a Free State could and did elect representatives to voice their opinions in Parliament. Because of the proportional system, 274,226 supporters of the Farmers' Union, the Labour Party and Independents found a voice. They all supported the Treaty to a greater or lesser extent. but had no great love for the actual Treaty party. Together, however, with those who voted for Collins' party, they showed that the majority of the people accepted the Articles of Agreement and wanted peace.

On the other hand, those who remained loyal to the Republican ideal were not wiped out, as they would have been under the old system. Nineteen of their 41 candidates were elected and, together with the 17 anti-Treatyites returned unopposed, they made up a formidable party. The Treaty party nominated 48 candidates in the contested constituencies and 41 of these secured election. In proportion to the votes received, they were entitled to 35 seats only, so that, in fact, they received a bonus of six seats. The 19 seats gained by the Republicans were in actual proportion to the votes cast for them Labour won two seats less than they were entitled to proportionally, and, theoretically, Independents elected four fewer deputies than their votes should have brought them.

What this means, in fact, is that larger parties win seats for far fewer votes than do their smaller rivals in the ordinary way. This pattern has continued throughout the years, and it will be found that, in general, from 1923 onwards the Republicans (later Fianna Fail) and the Free staters (later Cumann na nGaedheal and Fine Gael) were given a slight, but significant bonus at each election at the expense of the Labour Party and of the Farmers. In 1923 this gave the de Valera group three extra seats; in June, 1927, four extra; six extra in 1932; nine extra in 1943; six extra in 1948 and seven extra in 1957. Similarly, the Treaty party was given a bonus of five in 1923, of four in June, 1927; of three in 1933, of two in 1944, of three in 1954, and of one in 1957.

The third national party, Labour, however, generally won fewer seats than their votes theoretical1y entitled them to. It won four less in 1927, four less in 1932, five less in 1938, five less in 1943, and two less in 1957. Smaller organisations of a more ephemeral nature did even worse. Of these the classic case is possibly that of Clann na Poblachta, which received 174,823 votes in 1948, but which gained only 10 seats. Had seats been dealt out in strict proportion to the votes cast it would have had 19 members in the Thirteenth Dáil.

This "bonus" system is, nevertheless a tribute to the Irish system of proportional representation, since it means that the will of the majority will prevail at all times and that parties supported by very large sections of the electorate will have sufficient strength to carry out the wishes of those - who elected them, and, if entrusted with Government, will have reasonable majorities to help put their policies into effect. It ensures that the main opposition party at all times is strong enough to correct, advise and oppose the Government, and that there is no danger of having a Government controlling 90% of the deputies and the Opposition having the support of a mere 10%.

Small Parties
In addition. however, minority groups supported by fairly considerable sections of the community are reasonably sure of winning some representation. For example, in June, 1927, Captain W. A. Redmond's National League nominated candidates for the first time, gained 83,969 votes, won eight seats and for the next four months put forward the point of view of the odd coalition of electors which supported it. The party fulfilled its destiny within a very short time, and eventually its rump amalgamated with Cumann na nGaedheal. It is difficult nowadays to see what possible use the National League was; but, at the same time, it obviously gave an outlet to a certain fairly substantial minority who might otherwise have expressed themselves in a less democratic fashion. The same is true of Mr. Frank MacDermot's National Centre Party, which with 126,771 votes gained 11 seats in 1933.

Indeed, the feeling of "belonging" and being part of the State that P,R. has given to various sections of the people at various times since the Free State was set up is possibly one of its greatest achievements. All too many people at present do not realise the extent of the hatred, the bitterness and the loathing that followed the civil war. Yet within five years the State was functioning fairly well and all parties with reasonable followings were represented in its Parliament. Abstentionists became convinced of their folly when they saw a recognised Government doing its business normally and a critical opposition, Labour, doing the work which they themselves should be doing. They knew that a few more years outside Leinster House could kill their movement and switch anti-Government support to Labour. Their entry into the Dáil was helped by a Government move to stop abstentionists from even standing for Parliament. They came in with a party of 44 deputies, became a constitutional opposition, and five years later took over the Government.

What Might Have Been
Were it not for the proportional representation system it is very doubtful if such a peaceful state of affairs could have been brought about so soon. Certainly, it seems most unlikely that. under the British system, the Republican Abstentionists would have managed to elect as many as 44 deputies in 1923 and again in 1927, and Labour would have found it very hard indeed to get 22 members into Parliament without P.R. It appears probable that under the old method the Treaty Party would have had an overwhelming majority of seats for many years, and the likelihood of their being ousted by the erstwhile revolutionaries of Fianna Fail as early as 1932 would have been remote in the extreme. Since Labour's representation would have been tiny there would have been no effective opposition in the House. Out of such a situation more bitterness and hatred would have been hound to come.

Fortunately. thanks to a system that gave fair shares to all a certain unity came about, hatreds cooled and all settled down in Parliament to work in accord for the good of the country. The feeling of most democratically-minded people on the subject was put into words in 1938 by Dr. A. A. Luce, Berkeley Professor of Metaphysics at T.C.D. in his famous letter to this newspaper. "P.R. has been a healing force in our midst. Old political feuds are dying; public spirit is replacing faction. Our elections are well conducted. The voice of reason is heard and the gun is silent. P.R. deserves much of the credit; for P.R. produces contented and loyal minorities, whereas the other system breeds muzzled, sullen. discontented minorities, predisposed to doctrines of violence," he wrote.

Before P.R.
Dr. Luce may have recalled some of the events of the three elections which preceded P.R.'s introduction into Ireland. Shootings, threats, beatings, personation and theft of ballot-boxes were not at all uncommon before the introduction of P.R. They were the stock-in-trade of the old Irish Party and were inherited by Sinn Fein in 1918. Out of all these abuses came the uncontested seat-the seat that went without a fight to a given party, because its opponents were afraid to nominate a candidate. Since P.R. was introduced this evil has disappeared, and hardly any candidate has been elected to Dáil Éireann without a fight.

This makes an interesting contrast to the position in Northern Ireland. It also contrasts with the position in the whole of Ireland before P.R. An election was held in Ireland in January, 1906, at which 103 seats were to be filled. Only 21 contests took place on election day; 82 members had been returned unopposed. Five years later, in December, 1910, 56 M.P.s out of a total of 103 went to Parliament without any election, and in 1918 25 Sinn Féiners, almost all of them unknown to their constituents, were elected unopposed. In all these cases the battle was not so much of the ballot as of the bullet, the blackthorn-stick and the fist.