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.

How it all began.

THOMAS WRIGHT HILL is known to posterity only as the father of Rowland Hill, the man who instituted the penny post. But he has another claim to fame because, in a sense, he started a revolution that has influenced world politics to a considerable extent. The famous Postmaster General has recorded how his father, a schoolteacher, worked out an electoral system based on the single transferable vote and the multimember constituency in 1821.

It happened more or less by accident, when he asked the pupils in his school to elect a boys' advisory committee by standing beside the boy they liked best. At first this produced a number of unequal groups, but soon those in the largest groups realised that not all of them were actually necessary for the election of their favourites and so some of them moved on to help other candidates. On the other hand, the comparatively few supporters of an unpopular boy came to the conclusion that he had no chance of being elected, and they transferred themselves to the candidate they considered the next best. The final result was that a number of candidates equal to the number required for the committee was each surrounded by the same number of supporters, with only three or four boys left over who were completely dissatisfied with all those elected.

Secret Ballot
Thirty-four years after Hill's experiment the Danish statesman, Carl Andrae; invented a system by which the single transferable vote could be adapted to the secret ballot, and two years later Thomas Hare enunciated the idea in Britain. He publicised his electoral system immediately following the 1857 general elections in a pamphlet entitled "The Machinery of Representation," and he later developed his ideas about proportional representation and election by the single transferable vote, the multimember constituency and the quota system in a further publication "The Election of Representatives. Parliamentary and Municipal," printed in 1859. This second booklet aroused great interest, sold very well and went into many editions. Hare's ideas on electoral reform coincided more or less with those of Andrae, although he arrived at them quite independently. The major difference between the Hare proposals and their later development is that Hare visualised the whole of Britain as one large constituency, returning as many members as were necessary for the House of Commons and giving the right to all electors to vote for their favourite candidates no matter where they came from. Britain had an electorate of 1,227,274 in 1857 when Hare broadcast his ideas. Theoretically, this proposal of one large constituency has much to commend it. In practice, however, it would probably lead to tremendous complications and unsurmountable difficulties. As it happened, when elections on the P.R. principle based on the single transferable vote and the quota system were eventually held, the most favoured size of constituency was one which returned between four and seven members to Parliament.

Hope Deceived
John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and economist, warmly commended the Hare system in his "Consideration of Representative Government," published in 1861, and in the 20 years that followed the method won a considerable amount of academic support. Eleven years after Mill's endorsement of the system a Bill advocating the application of P.R. principles in elections in England and Wales was unsuccessfully introduced into the House of Commons by Walter Morrison and Henry Fawcett.

In 1884 the prospect of a Franchise and Redistribution Bill led to the formation of the Proportional Representation Society, of which Sir John Lubbock, afterwards Lord Avebury, was the chief mover and guiding spirit. Mr. Leonard Courtney, at that time Financial Secretary to the Treasury in Gladstone's Government, became convinced of the need for a more just system of voting than the "spot method" then (and now) in use in Britain. He studied various methods of improving the system, and in the end decided that P.R was the answer to the country's electoral problems But Gladstone refused even to consider the proposal and Courtney immediately resigned from the Government.

Shortly afterwards, as a result of an understanding between Gladstone and the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Salisbury, a system of one-member constituencies based on equality of population was established for the first time in Britain. No real change was made in the voting system itself. This dashed the hopes of the 200 Members of Parliament who belonged to the P.R. Society, and the movement became dormant until 1905, when it came to life again in anticipation of a further Franchise and Redistribution Bill. This Bill however, did not come about until 1918, but from its revival to the present day the society has been very much alive, and has helped the cause of electoral reform in many parts of the world.

Irish Interest
Irish interest in electoral reform was first noticed following the publication of a letter from Lord Courtney to Thomas Sexton in the Freeman's Journal on January 14th, 1911. This letter advocated the introduction of the P.R. principle into Irish elections, It suggested that the country be divided into constituencies returning from three to five members each to Parliament and that election be held on the single transferable vote method. Since the spot-voting system had given the country little satisfaction in the preceding years and since it gave no chance whatever to the growing, but still weak, Irish-Ireland and Labour elements, many thinking people realised that a change was necessary.

Courtney's suggestion soon found considerable support and when he came to Dublin on April 20th, 1911, a large audience gathered to hear his speech on P.R. delivered in the Ancient Concert Rooms. After his speech a model election was held and the system was fully explained and illustrated. Five months later, on September 12th, 1911, the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland was formed with the aim of changing the country's election system and introducing the single transferable vote, the quota counting method and the multi-member constituency.

Influential Advocates
The Irish P.R. society was helped by some of the most prominent nationally minded people of the day and their propaganda work had a great deal of influence among thinking sections throughout the country. Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Féin leader, gave it wholehearted support, and Nationalist members at Westminster realised that the system offered a solution to some of Ireland's unique problems. They knew that a method must be found to give the minority, the Unionists and especially those in Leinster and Munster fair representation in the Home Rule Parliament which they believed would be set up within a few years. Under the existing spot vote it would be virtually impossible for these elements to elect any members at all.

Griffith's views on P.R. were expressed in many references which he made to the necessity of having representatives of all sections in the proposed legislature. In an article in Sinn Féin on February 25th, 1911, he declared: "P.R. secures that the majority of the electors shall rule, and that minorities shall be represented in proportion to their strength. It is the one just system of election in democratic government."

Largely as a result of the work done by the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland the system was embodied in the Home Rule scheme of 1912, and subsequently in the ill-fated Home Rule Act of 1914. As we will see, the Irish society kept up pressure, and because of the influential converts it gained for the cause of electoral reform P.R. was introduced to Sligo in 1918 and to the whole of Ireland in all elections, parliamentary and municipal, in the following two years.

Five Claims
The advocates of the system in this country made five claims for the P.R. principle, and these claims made sense to an electorate sick and tired of faction fighting on issues which had little to do with the well-being of the constituents, of the control of divisions by gombeen men who, in effect, sent their "own" member to Parliament, of suspected corruption and of despicable methods of electioneering. The P.R. Society declared that an election fought on the single transferable vote with a quota counting system in a multimember constituency would:

1. Reproduce the opinions of the electors in Parliament and other public bodies in their true proportion.
2. Secure that the majority of electors should rule and that all considerable minorities should be heard.
3. Give electors a wider freedom of choice of representatives.
4. Give representatives greater independence from the financial and other pressures of small sections of constituents.
5. Ensure to parties representation by their ablest and most trusted members.

Other election methods were described to the people and their defects pointed out. Among these was the Spot vote, then and now in use in Britain, by which the voter makes an "X" mark in front of his one choice. This method, it was pointed out, was all right where there were only two contestants for a seat, but was quite unsuitable otherwise owing to the fantastic and distorted results it was capable of giving. The Irish electorate, at the time, did not require any over-emphasising of this latter point: they were only too well aware of it.

All in all, the Irish people were in general agreement that the system of the single transferable vote, as we know it to-day, was best suited to the needs of the country, and when it came into use in parliamentary and municipal elections in the early twenties few indeed objected to it.