Analysis: a rising population will mean an increase in the number of Dáil deputies to represent them, so what are the likely constituency changes?

The provisional population-by-area Census 2022 figures were published in June and showed a population level within the state of 5,123,536, marking a notable increase of 173,613 (7.6%) on the population level recorded for the 2016 Census (4,761,865). These are, of course, only provisional figures, but the provisional census figures, especially for large geographical areas, tend to be usually very accurate when it comes to population estimates. For instance, the provisional Census 2016 figures only under-estimated the national population figure by 3,889 people or 0.08%.

This now leaves an average population of 32,022.1 per Dáil deputy across the State. Given that the Constitution explicitly states that the population per TD ratio nationally must not exceed 30,000 (or indeed fall below 20,000), this means that the smallest number of Dáil deputies, which can be envisaged in the upcoming review of Dáil constituency boundaries, is 171 (by contrast, the largest number is 256!). The one TD per 30,000 people limit in terms of the population per TD ratio does not apply to individual general election constituencies.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Catriona Crowe, formerly of the National Archives, discusses the preliminary figures from Census 2022

171 seats would already ensure a much higher number of seats in contrast with the current membership of 160 TDs in Dáil Éireann. Based on previous reports, the range of seats the new Electoral Commission (once established) will get to choose from will run from 171 to 181 seats, as determined by Section 57 (2) of the Electoral Reform Act 2022. To ensure that the national seat level does not have to change again in the next boundary report, the Commission is likely to opt for a number at the upper end of this scale. This was what the Constituency Commission opted to do for its 2012 report.

The extent of the boundary changes that will be required will be more extensive than those required for any recent boundary report, at least since the introduction of independent commissions following on the failure of the "Tullymander" at the 1977 General Election. A new report must be published within three months of the publication of the definitive Census population-by-area figures. In the case of the 2016 Census. there were published within a year after the holding of the census in the case of the 2016 Census figures. If the definitive population-by-area figures are published for Census 2022 in April 2023, we may need to wait until July 2023 before the new report is published.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, Simon Carswell, Irish Times Public Affairs Editor, assesses the preliminary census figures

So where will the new seats go to? Looking at the geographical trends in terms of population and population change levels that are evident in the provisional Census 2022 figures, the following trend can be anticipated, if the Commission opts for a 176-seat, 178-seat, or 180-seat model.

Dublin

Five or six more seats can be expected for the Dublin region, with the capital likely to gain six seats if the Commission opts for a 178-seat or 180-seat model. At least two of these seats (and potentially three seats) will go to constituencies located within Fingal County and could require the creation of a new constituency within the Fingal County area.

The other seats would then be shared out between the following pairs/groups of constituencies, with one of the constituencies in these pairings/groupings gaining a seat and the other constituency/constituencies losing territory to this constituency in order to balance the population levels: Dublin Mid-West and Dublin South-West, Dun Laoghaire and Dublin Rathdown, Dublin Bay North, Dublin North-West and Dublin Central, and Dublin Bay-South and Dublin South-Central.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in July 2019, David Farrell, Professor of Politics at UCD, tells us what an electoral commission does and why we need one in Ireland

Cork

There will be two more seats for Cork. If the Commission opted to largely focus the constituency boundaries of Cork North-Central and the Cork South-Central on the newly enlarged Cork City area, Cork East would be likely to gain one of these extra seats, with the other seat going to either Cork North-West or Cork South-West.

Decisions made in relation to the two west Cork constituencies may ultimately be shaped by what decisions are made in relation to the Kerry constituency, whose population – based on the Census 2022 figures – would be too large to remain as a five-seat constituency (without the loss of territory to neighbouring constituencies) but too small to warrant gaining a seat (unless it gains territory from neighbouring constituencies).

Clare, Limerick and Tipperary

There may be scope for the Clare and Limerick constituencies to gain one seat between them, but this would require some messy decisions to be made in relation to redrawing the boundaries between the Clare and Limerick East constituencies. The Commission might decide to forestall these decisions and move territory from Clare and Limerick instead to a reimagined Tipperary North constituency.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, what economic impact will a rising population have on the country?

The Midlands

Two more seats for the Midlands region. Longford-Westmeath should gain an extra seat, which would also allow for the return of the Devlin area in north-east Westmeath (from Meath West). One of the most confounding decisions of the 2017 Constituency Commission was the decision to take away a seat from the counties of Laois and Offaly, even though the level of population growth in this area was well ahead of the national average during the 2000s. The three-seat Laois and Offaly constituencies are likely to return with the publication of the new boundary report.

Kildare and Meath

Two or three more seats to be shared out between Kildare and Meath, especially if the east Meath area is returned from the Louth constituency. The latter no longer needs east Meath as that county now has sufficient population to allow Louth County to be a stand-alone five-seat constituency.

Galway and Mayo

At least two more seats for the west. Mayo County is likely to be re-established as a stand-alone five-seat constituency. Galway would have sufficient population to be able to sustain ten Dáil seats should the Commission opt for a 180-seat model, but decisions affecting the Galway constituencies are also likely to be shaped by decisions affecting Roscommon.

There will also be seat gains for the current five-seat constituencies of Carlow-Kilkenny, Wexford, Tipperary, and Donegal, as well as Dublin Fingal (as noted above).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Late Debate, discussion on the preliminary census numbers and possible constituency changes

Unless an amendment was to be made to the Electoral Reform Act 2022 to allow for a change in the terms of reference for the Commission, the number of seats that can be in any Dáil constituency will range from three to five. As it stands, this will result in an enforced number of county boundary breaches, with, for instance, territory being moved from Laois to Offaly, and from Kilkenny to Carlow, to allow for sufficient population to sustain three-seat constituencies in Carlow and Offaly.

Some larger counties, such as Wexford, Donegal, and Tipperary, would need to be split into two three-seat constituencies. This may not be a serious issue for voters in Donegal and Tipperary, as these counties were split into two three-seat constituencies before the 2012 Constituency Commission report (and the boundary lines may well reflect the historical divide between Tipperary North and Tipperary South, on the one hand, and Donegal North-East and Donegal South-West, on the other), but there is no historical precedent for dividing the county of Wexford between two Dáil constituencies.

As happened in 2004, the Commission may also end up having to split Leitrim between Sligo-North Leitrim and Roscommon-South Leitrim three-seat constituencies. Difficulties in adding extra seats to the Fingal constituencies (Dublin Fingal and Dublin West), while operating under the constraints of three, four and five seat constituency units, could yet again require the town of Swords to be split within two constituencies.

Trends observed in public submissions made as part of the 2017 Constituency Commission review process. Image: supplied by autho

Such moves would also lead to an overall increase in the number of three-seat constituencies and notably reduce district magnitude levels within the State, thus effectively reducing the overall proportionality levels. It would also likely frustrate voters and potentially promote voter disengagement, as many voters do not wish to be end up in a small proportion of their county that gets added on to another constituency "just to make up the numbers".

My analysis (above) of the public submissions that formed part of recent Constituency Commission review process show that this is the one issue that irked most of the people making these submissions. Most submissions were focused on just one, or a small number of, constituencies, and most were opposing existing, or likely, county boundary breaches.

However, the potential to have six-seat constituencies would mean that a number of county boundary breaches could be avoided. It would also halt the potential mushrooming in the number of smaller, and hence less proportional, three-seat constituencies.

An amendment to the Electoral Reform Act 2022 to change the terms of reference for the Electoral Commission to allow them to use six-seat constituencies, even if in a limited number of cases, would by no means be a bad thing. It would allow the Commission a greater degree of flexibility in trying to limit the number of county boundary breaches, which, as we've seen, tend to be the main source of discontent for voters when it comes to the changing constituency boundaries.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ