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.


One of the most persistent arguments used by its detractors against proportional representation is that it gives rise to a multiplicity of small parties. Their argument is that the two party system, that which they claim is in force in the United Kingdom and in the United States, is by far the best, and that the further an electoral method is from that desirable system, the worse the method is. It is very doubtful if the so-called two-party system is the best for any country; it is probable that it would lead to disaster in Ireland, with her unsettled history, her unsolved national problems, and her population of individualists. Apart from that altogether, however, the argument that the Twenty-six Counties has been at the mercy of "splinter" parties since P.R. was introduced is worth examining.

The present Dáil is the 16th national assembly since 1918, but it is only the 14th of the post British era. Only two parties have taken part in the work of every Dáil since the State was founded. They are Cumann na nGaedheal, which later became Fine Gael, and the Labour Party, which, incidentally, is the oldest political party in the State. As well as these two organised parties, Independents, varying in numbers from five to 17, also took part in every Dáil.

The Oath
Republicans were elected to the third Dáil in June, 1922, and to the fourth Dáil, in August, 1923, but they refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King and so they could not legally take their seats. In March, 1926, the Republican movement split, one section, led by Mary MacSwiney, declaring that no Republican could take a seat in the Leinster House assembly under any circumstances, and the other, led by Eamon de Valera, stating that provided the Oath was removed it would be quite proper for Republicans to enter the Free State Dáil. Mr. de Valera founded Fianna Fail in May of that year. The new party fought the June, 1927, elections; won 44 seats, and entered the Dáil on August 12th.

Fianna Fáil's entry into the Dáil brought the number of parties represented in the House up to five. These were Cumann na nGaedheal, Farmers, Labour, National League and Fianna Fail. Five Sinn Fein deputies who were also elected abstained. As a matter of interest these were the last Sinn Féiners to be elected until March, 1957-nearly 30 years later.

The National League lost most of its members in the second 1927 election and it eventually joined with Cumann na nGaedheal.

Three Effective
Five parties were represented in the sixth Dáil, but the Farmers and the National League deputies put together numbered only eight. In practice, there were only three effective parties, Cumann na nGaedheal, Fianna Fail and Labour. By 1932 the Farmers were reduced to three members, the National League had completely disappeared and only the three large parties remained. Fianna Fail by then commanded 72 seats, Cumann na nGaedheal had 56 deputies and Labour had nine. Labour and Fianna Fail were in alliance and the Opposition consisted of Cumann na nGaedheal and nine Independents

A new party, the National Centre Party, won II seats in 1933 but by then the Farmers' Party had been swallowed by Cumann na nGaedheal so that the number of parties remained at four. Three parties only, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, secured representation in the ninth Dáil, and the number of parties remained the same for the tenth Dáil elected in June. 1938.

The Farmers re-emerged under the title Clann na Talmhan in June, 1943, and did extraordinarily well, winning 14 seats. This brought the number of parties again up to four. It remained the same in the twelfth Dáil. In 1948, however, with the arrival of Clann na Poblachta. the number increased to five and it remained at that figure until 1957. In that year a new abstentionist party, calling itself Sinn Fein and claiming succession from the old movement, fought 19 seats and won four. On the other hand Clann na Poblachta virtually, disappeared at that election, only one of its 12 candidates securing election, and only three Clann na Talmhan deputies were returned. These Clann na Talmhan members have since been more or less repudiated by their own executive and act in the Dáil more as Independent members than as a political party. This means that in fact, if not in theory, there are three proper political parties and 13 Independent members in the sixteenth Dáil

Ad Hoc Parties
All this amounts to one fact. That is that since the State was founded there have been three national parties in existence, Fianna Fail (anti-Treaty). Fine Gael (Treaty), and Labour. Others have arisen at various times to forward certain ideas or to do certain things and, their work done, they have disappeared. Proportional representation saw to it that when these organisations gained a certain following they were reasonably sure of securing some representation in the House. Under the British system, as has been pointed out before, there would have been a distinct danger that some of these minorities, having a considerable following but being denied parliamentary seats, would have chosen more dangerous and less democratic methods to forward their viewpoints.

In all it can be seen that since the State was founded an average of four groups has secured representation in each Dáil. On occasion the fourth group consisted of Republicans on other occasions it represented conservative interests. and sometimes it stood for small farmers. Throughout the years, of course numerous other small groups, parties and organisations such as Ailtirí na h-Aiséirí. Clann Éireann. National Action, Cine Gael, Young Ireland, Córas na Poblachta, Tenants' Association and the Irish Workers' League nominated candidates, but they received very little support and won no seats. Needless to say, these groups could nominate candidates under any other system; their lack of success with P.R. indicates what their fate would be with other electoral methods.

Outlet Provided
Taking all elections since 1923 it will be seen that four-fifths of the seats in Dáil Éireann have normally been shared between the two large parties and that only one-fifth is left for the others. The third national party, Labour, generally wins somewhat less than one-tenth of the seats, and the small parties that come and go, together with the Independents, collect a little more than 10% in the ordinary way.

It will be gathered from this that proportional representation as such does not give rise to large numbers of parties but that it helps substantial minorities to voice their opinion in the legislature. It will also be seen from the facts and figures quoted above that the well organised parties always get control of the Dáil and the minorities in the House are a direct reflection of the minorities in the country.

As well as making sure that substantial numbers of people do not turn bitterly and sullenly against the State itself, the P.R. system which allows them representation also makes sure that independent thought and minority opinion find an outlet and are not stifled by the hard-faced managers of the large parties whose only ambition is to keep their party in power and to smother any discontent and deny wavering from the party line which might endanger electoral chances

The position of the religious minority in the State in regard to elections provides a great deal of food for thought. The average number of Protestants in the House since 1922 has been about 6% of the total membership. This seems extraordinarily fair when one thinks of their numbers in the country - 7 % of the total population in 1926, 6% in 1936 and 5.6% in 1946 and of the fact that they are now in a minority in every constituency. On the other hand when the figures are examined it will be seen that there has been a steady decline in Protestant representation over the years and especial1y since Fianna Fail came into power in 1932. No one, of course, claims that this decline has come about as a result of deliberate Government policy; many say, however, that the decline has been accentuated by the two Fianna Fail Electoral Acts of 1935 and 1947

Nine Protestants were elected to the Third Dáil; with the extension of the proportional representation principle under the 1923 Electoral Act, 14 Protestants secured representation in the fourth Dáil. The number remained at 14 for the fifth Dáil dropped to 13 in the sixth, to 12 in the seventh and to nine in the eighth Dáil.

From 1923 until 1935 the average number of deputies returned by a constituency was 5.1. Eight, constituencies elected three deputies only, one elected nine deputies; three returned eight; five returned seven deputies; nine returned five and four areas elected four members each.

All Changed
This gave an excellent chance to members of minority religions, who, even when they belonged to the large parties, found additional difficulties In their path to Dad Éireann. Fianna Fail changed all this in 1935, brought the average number of deputies returned by each constituency down to 4.06, abolished the eight and nine-seat constituencies and increased the number of three-seat constituencies to 15.

The change greatly lessened the chances of Protestants securing election and it was bitterly attacked in the Dáil by Opposition members who described it is a form of ~gerrymandering. Defending the Government against the various charges. Mr. Sean Lemass said (Dáil Debates Vol. 51. Col. 1,288): "It is not, possible to gerrymander in this country. One reason is because proportional representation operates, and if proportional representation operates there you have the certainty that as a result of the election the representation of the different interests in the Dáil is going to be in almost exact proportion to the votes cast for each party. It has always worked out that way and it will work out that way in the future."

No Gerrymandering
In spite of what opposition said there is no proof that any gerrymandering took place under the 1935 Act. Even so, the Protestant representation in the House fell from nine in 1933 to four in 1944. In 1947 Fianna Fail introduced another Electoral Act and this time the average number of deputies per constituency was reduced to 3.68. Seven-seat constituencies were abolished, the number of three seaters increased to 22, nine five seaters were created and nine four seaters.

The Opposition claimed that the Government favoured three-seaters for party reasons, and that the move was likely to hurt Fianna Fail's opponents considerably. Whatever the cause, Protestant representation was again reduced in the next election. Three Protestants were returned to the Dáil in 1948; four Protestants sit in the present House. In short, Protestant representation has fallen from 14 in 1923 to four in 1959. Part of the reason for the fall is the drop in the Protestant population, but a more serious part is the effect of the whittling down of the proportional system in 1935 and in 1947.

It appears likely that Protestant representation would disappear altogether in this country under the British system. In view of the contribution made by Protestants to this State since its foundation and to the country as a whole for the past 350 years, it seems a great pity that this should happen.

The other minorities who have already been mentioned would suffer likewise under the British system of election. As has been stated they come, make their point. put forward their policy and then disappear naturally, having completed their business in public life. Without P.R., however, they could never send deputies to Parliament, never make themselves heard, and they would live on as angry and frustrated groups kept out of public life by an outmoded election system and plotting and planning against the State.

The situation was summed up well by the Rev. Dr A. A. Luce when he wrote (Irish Times, 23-6
1938): "P.R. has been a unifying force, and unity is strength.

"The old system antagonises majority and minority, accentuates the differences between them. and, therefore, weakens both. How then can some say that P.R. fails to give strong governance? A contented minority is a strength to the majority, while a discontented minority and a bullying majority are a weakness to the whole body politic. Surely those who accuse P.R. of making for weak Governments are confusing the strength of authority, based on political consent, with the brute strength of force majeure."