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.

Why Ireland Chose P.R.

THE reformed electoral method was first seen in action in Sligo in January, 19l9. Under the Sligo Corporation Act of the previous year, large-scale changes were introduced into the town's government, which had run into considerable difficultie6. As a result of bad administration and indifferent administrators, the conditions under which the majority of the people lived were extremely bad. Houses were falling apart, and many of them had neither windows nor chimneys, the streets were filthy, and what passed for footpaths had not been resurfaced in years. It was generally agreed that the town was unlikely to improve in the fore6eeable future, because, even if the Corporation wished to do its duty towards the citizens, it would have, difficulty in finding all the money needed. Because of the limitations imposed in regard to levying rates in the town by the Sligo Borough Improvement Act of l869, the Council was unable to rai6e sufficient money to make ends meet, and, in fact, the town's debts were increasing by about £700 a year.

In addition, the Unionists, who were the town's largest ratepayers, were not represented on the Council at all, and the administration was wholly in the hands of the Nationalists. This had been the case since the franchise was extended under the Local Government Act of 1898. Before that Act, the Unionists, who formed 25 % of the population, were completely in control of local affairs, and the other 75% of the citizens were virtually unrepresented. Each side realised that there was something radically wrong with the situation, but they knew of no way to improve matters.

Sligo Bill
Eventually things came to a head, and it was agreed that the town's authority for levying rates must be extended at once if Sligo was to survive. It was also agreed that provision must be made for all sections to be represented on the Corporation. Many methods were suggested for getting some Unionists on to the Corporation - appointed members, members picked by lot from a list and others -but all were rejected for one reason or another.

Then a local man, Mr. T. J. Kilgannon, came forward with a suggestion that an election could be held on proportional representation principles and that it would give fair representation to all sections of the community. He explained the system to members of the Corporation and to the Ratepayers' Association. Both bodies accepted it. So did a general meeting of the town's citizens held in the town hall, and then the Sligo Bill, which incorporated the various proposals for the Corporation, was introduced and piloted through the House of Commons by Thomas Scanlan, the local Nationalist M.P.

"A Model"
All sides were satisfied with the results of the election held on January 15th. 1919. Labour, Sinn Fein, Nationalists and Unionists all secured representation according to their strength, and the result was greeted by papers all over Ireland as “a triumph for the principle of proportional representation" and it was claimed that "it has given Sligo a model council."

Because of its excellent showing in Sligo, local bodies, newspapers and prominent citizens of all political views, apart from Ulster Unionists, all over Ireland, acclaimed it and advocated its introduction in all elections held in the country. Sinn Feiners as well as Southern Unionists. Labour men as well as Tory Nationalists spoke and wrote in its favour and when the Irish Local Government Bill was being drafted later that year, the P.R. principle of election was incorporated in it.
The Bill was bitterly opposed in the Commons by the Unionist representatives of Ulster, who saw in it a danger to their own supremacy. They knew that it would give Nationalists some representation on local bodies in areas where Unionists had majorities and where no other interest could secure seats under the relative majority system. On the other hand it was welcomed by Sir Maurice Dockrell, who spoke for the Unionists of the South, and by Joe Devlin who spoke for Northern Nationalists. The great majority of Irish members, of course, were not present at the debate, since they had scorned representation at Westminster and had set up Dáil Éireann in Dublin. However, there is no doubt but that the Sinn Féin T.D.s would have favoured the measure as a democratic one.
During the debate the Ulstermen made it clear that they would abolish P.R. at the earliest opportunity and revert to the British system. In spite of them the Bill was passed, and so the principle of proportional representation was extended to 326 local authorities in Ireland-county councils, town councils, urban district councils, rural councils and Boards of Guardians.

Fair Result
Local elections were held throughout Ireland on January 15th, 192O, under the P.R. voting method. The majority of seats went to Sinn Fein, the most popular and most powerful party, but, at the same time, other interests were not wiped out Apart again from the Northern Tories, all sections of the community were satisfied with the fairness of the result.

The election in Belfast and in Dublin city may be cited as an example of this fairness to all minorities. In 1918, under the British spot voting system, Dublin returned seven Sinn Feiners to Parliament and rejected all others, in spite of the considerable anti-Republican vote On the other hand, Belfast elected eight Unionists and one Nationalist and no other interest won any representation

On the face of it it seems probable that the Unionists would have had an overwhelming victory in Belfast, and that Sinn Feiners alone would have been elected in the Dublin municipal elections, if these were held under the old system. In fact the results achieved through P.R were as follows: Dublin elected 80 members to its Corporation of whom 42 were Sinn Feiners, 15 Labour, 12 Unionists, nine Nationalists and two Independents. Of the 60 seats to be filled in Belfast 35 went to the Unionists; Labour won 12, Sinn Fein and the Nationalists won five apiece and three were secured by Independents. The Republicans in Dublin were quite pleased with the resu1t and said that what they wanted was fair representation for all on elected bodies. The same cannot be said for the dominant party in Belfast, which reiterated its threat to abolish P.R. as soon as it was humanly possible to do so.

North Reverted
Because of its popularity with the Irish electorate and because the British Government wished to safeguard minorities both in the North and in the South, it was stipulated in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that elections in both parts of the country should in future be on P.R. principles. However, since the Ulstermen had previously declared their intention of reverting to spot voting if they got a chance, a provision was included in the Act which prevented either State from changing the system for a period of three years after the Act came into force. The Northern Government went back to the old way in time for the local elections of June, 1924, and in time for the general elections of 1929.

It is interesting to note that in the Northern Ireland general elections held on May 24th, 1921, on P.R. principles, not one candidate was returned unopposed. In 1925, again with P.R., only eight seats were gained without a fight. But in the 1929 elections, fought under the British system. 22 seats were uncontested, and in the general elections held four years later no fewer than 33 members out of a total of 52 were returned to Parliament without any opportunity being given to the electors to pass Judgment upon them. It is a notorious fact that the same pattern has continued up to the present day.

Preferential Voting
The method of proportional representation introduced into all elections in all parts of Ireland in the 'twenties was the same as that still in use in general and local elections in the Republic, apart from some whittling down of its proportional effect brought about by the 1935 and the 1947 Electoral Acts. It embraces three methods, each one of which depends upon the other to give the proportional principle its proper effect. These are the single transferable vote, the multi-member constituency, and the quota method of counting.

'Preferential voting" is another term sometimes used to describe the single transferable vote, and it means just that. It allows the elector not alone to pick out and indicate his first choice, but also to state whom he favours as second choice, third choice, and so on. Not alone does it give the elector the opportunity of choosing between different parties, but it also allows him to pick his favourite candidates in order from the list supplied by the party of his choice. Generally speaking, if the elector favours one of the three larger parties, he will find more than one representative of that party standing in his constituency, so that. even if he regards one of them as a rogue or a fraud, he can still help his party without voting against his conscience. This is in direct contrast to the position under the British system, where the voter has to stand by his own party's candidate, no matter how rotten he may be, or else vote for a party in whose policy he has no belief.

Throughout the years the Irish elector has been given a fairly wide choice of candidates in each constituency. At the last general election in March, 1957, this choice varied from four in South Kerry, a three-seat constituency, to twelve in Dublin North-East, a five-seat division. The average choice was slightly over seven. Forty constituencies returned 147 deputies to the House, nine electing five deputies each, another nine sending four members apiece to the Dáil and 22 returning three each. The third principle involved in the Irish P.R. system is "quota counting." For some reason, this is the part of the proportional representation method which people find hardest to understand. In fact, it is an extraordinarily simple principle. The "quota" is that proportion of the votes which is certain to secure the election of a candidate. If there is only one candidate to be elected, it is evident that half of the' total vote plus one is the quota: the candidate who obtains 51 out of 100 votes in a single-member constituency is sure of election. Similarly, in a two-member constituency, the quota is a third of the votes plus one. Any candidate who receives more than one-third of the votes must be elected. If there are 100 votes, only two candidates can poll as many as 34 each. Together they will have 68 votes, leaving only 32 votes for all other competitors. Similarly in a three-member constituency, the candidate who obtains more than one-fourth, 26 out of 100, is sure of election; in a four member constituency one more than a fifth is sufficient and so on. In general terms, the quota is found by dividing the total number of votes polled by the number of seats increased by one, and adding one to the result so obtained.

It will be seen from the way in which the quota system works that a minority candidate is likely to have a far better chance in a larger constituency than in a small, say three-seat, division. Since 1947 the largest constituency in the country returns but five members and the great majority only three each. Later we will see how this came about. At present it will suffice to point out that between 1923 and 1935 there was one constituency returning nine members to the Dáil; three returned eight. five returned seven. nine returned five, four returned four, and only eight out of the total of 30 elected three T.D.'s. It is interesting to note that the number of deputies belonging to minority religions in the Dáil at that period was about three times the size of the present representation.