Would changing the electoral system change Irish politics?

Ahead of this weekend’s Constitutional Convention, Brian Mahon takes a look at the state of our electoral system.

Written by Brian Mahon


Our electoral system is broken we are told. Nobody else in the world uses PR-STV besides Malta. It’s time for a change. With the Constitutional Convention about to consider our electoral system, PR-STV appears to be just about hanging on.

Several claims have been leveled against the current system; chief amongst them that it promotes an excessive sense of parochialism amongst TD’s. Opponents claim that the overly proportional and open nature of our system means that any prospective candidate is not only fighting against other parties but also those from within his/her own party.

This leaves little time for interest in national affairs. When looked at comparatively, Ireland’s political representatives are in fact not far outside the norm in stating that their primary concerns are their constituents. In fact, in the House of Commons 53% of MPs state that it is a ‘high’ priority versus 39% in Dáil Eireann. Hansard, a political research organisation, found that MPs spend on average 49% of their time on constituency based issues.

Dáil Deputies, by comparison, spend 53% of their time on constituency issues. As Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives has said ‘All politics is local’. PR-STV is both an open (in terms of voter choice for candidate and party) and proportional system of electing representatives. While the system itself is unique when compared with other proportional systems, it does not differ as wildly as has been claimed. It makes the politicians responsive to their electorate.

Indeed, ensuring that politicians are linked to the electorate is becoming increasingly common across Europe where variations on a list system are used. It is this system that has been proposed by some as an antidote to our current woes. Nevertheless, these solutions come with their own problems. Closed list systems mean voters are once removed from their representatives. One could argue that it is better for the electorate to choose their own candidates rather than anonymous individuals at party HQ presenting the electorate with a restricted menu of options.

Voting booths with voters behind curtains.
Proponents of a list system are essentially saying that they trust party apparatchiks to choose who we should have as a fair proportion of our representatives rather than the electorate. The reality of why our politicians are seen to be parochial in nature is far more complex. We have a system that perversely facilitates a huge amount of choice by the electorate in choosing who they want and from what party.

Post-election though, the electorate becomes powerless, as the political representatives that have been elected find themselves in a Dáil where the Cabinet and Government is all powerful vis á vis the Parliament, and where the average backbenchers or leader of the opposition has little or no say in policy formulation or legislation.

Our politicians also find themselves in a situation where their constituents look to them rather than local councillors for assistance in relatively mundane issues. Our local system of Government is effectively useless; it has paltry powers in terms of raising funds and in comparison with other states, it has little or no role in the provision of education, health or transport.

What is needed then is not in fact an overhaul of the electoral system but rather a reform of our Parliament and local Government. The much maligned PR-STV actually gives Irish voters greater choice than most other options while also ensuring minority groups are heard. Until backbenchers and the Opposition are at least given the chance to look at legislation in a meaningful way and hold inquiries in committees we cannot simply lay the blame at the feet of our electoral system. Reform of local Government would also go a long way to alleviating the local, “bread and butter” issues that our TD’s have to deal with on a regular basis.

This is not to say that another system cannot be tried but it would, at best, be a band aid solution to the problem that bedevils Irish politics. Parochialism. Do some politicians abuse this loophole in the system? Undoubtedly. But as long as our national politicians are perceived to have more power than councillors on local, relatively unimportant issues, such as filling in potholes and are ignored once they reach the gates of Leinster House, then no electoral system will fix the ‘way we do politics.’

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