As the Constituency Commission report on electoral boundaries is released, Steven Balbirnie looks at what impact their findings will have on the political landscape
If the denizens of Leinster House are looking more nervous than usual, there’s a good reason for it: the Constituency Commission have just published their findings and are recommending the most substantial changes to Ireland’s electoral landscape since 1980.
The Constituency Commission is an independent body formed to review electoral boundaries based on the results of the 2011 census; and it has recommended that the number of constituencies be reduced from forty-three to forty while also radically redrawing boundaries, with only eleven constituencies remaining unaffected.
Before the last General Election Fine Gael’s ‘New Politics’ manifesto proposed that the number of TDs be reduced by twenty; so it may come as something of a surprise that the commission’s report advocates a cut of only eight. However, there is an indisputable reason for this. The Irish constitution stipulates that there must be one TD per every 30,000 citizens, which means that eight is the highest reduction which the commission can constitutionally propose. Any further reduction in TD numbers would require a referendum. One can only presume that Fine Gael must have underestimated the results of the 2011 census when they drafted the ‘New Politics’ document.
So what are the potential repercussions of this report? Well, the findings could be a source of worry for the Fine Gael and Labour parties, while looking like an omen of disaster for the Independent benches.
The redrawing of boundaries now puts half the Independent seats in jeopardy. The merging of the two Donegal constituencies should concern Thomas Pringle as he polled the lowest out of the six sitting TDs. The combination of Kerry constituencies will also test the appeal of Tom Fleming and Michael Healy-Rae to voters across a much wider area, while the creation of a single Tipperary constituency will similarly challenge Mattie McGrath, Michael Lowry and Séamus Healy. The amalgamation of Dublin North-East and Dublin North-Central into a single Dublin Bay North constituency could cause problems for Finian McGrath, and the reduction of Dublin Central to three seats means that the next election could produce a fierce battle between Maureen O’Sullivan and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald for the final seat.
The new boundaries also look like bad news for Fine Gael as the party could be facing a loss of four seats. The reduction of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s constituency of Mayo to four seats means that there is little doubt the party will be losing a seat as they currently hold four out of the county’s five seats. The loss of a seat in a reduced Cavan-Monaghan is also likely, and the downsizing of Cork South-Central ensures that Jerry Buttimer and Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath will be locked in a duel for the third seat. Most serious for the party however, is the transformation of the five seat Dublin South constituency into the three seat Dublin Rathdown constituency. This change could yield a high-profile casualty for the party, as Minister for Justice Alan Shatter received the least first-preference votes out of the three Fine Gael TDs in the area at the last election.
Labour should also be worried by the report as reductions in Galway East, Dublin South-Central and the newly dubbed Dublin Rathdown could endanger the seats of sitting Labour TDs; though the party could capitalise on the splitting of Laois and Offaly into separate constituencies. The new Dublin Bay North constituency will provide a serious headache for the party as Labour currently hold three of the seats between Dublin North-East and Dublin North-Central; a difficult feat to repeat once the constituencies are merged. Labour may be forced to drop a candidate which, given his previous defiance of the party whip, could easily be Tommy Broughan.
Fianna Fáil could be one of the few parties to actually benefit from the new constituency boundaries. They may pick up the extra seat in Sligo-Leitrim and the allocation of an additional seat in Dublin North, which has been renamed Dublin Fingal, offers the party an opportunity to regain representation in the capital. Though if the Greens decide to run Trevor Sargent, or the Socialists run Ruth Coppinger, either could pip Darragh O’Brien to the constituency’s final seat. The amalgamation of Dublin Bay North may also provide an opportunity for Averil Power.
Essentially, the findings of the Constituency Commission will provide Irish politicians with a mixture of challenges and opportunities at the 2016 General Election. Fine Gael and Labour look set for some losses and difficulties in candidate selection, while Independents will be forced to broaden their appeal to avoid electoral oblivion. The changes will also assist Fianna Fáil in their attempts at recovery and the creation of more five seat constituencies could be to the benefit of smaller parties such as Sinn Féin and the ULA. One thing is for certain though; the spectre of the next election will already be hanging heavily over Leinster House.