Wide variations in voter power around the country

Constituency boundaries would probably be declared unconstitutional if challenged, but only after publication of official census. By Vincent Browne

Almost certainly there will be a legal challenge to a refusal to amend the constituency boundaries before the next election, in the light of the census returns. But it is not clear what the outcome of such a challenge would be.

The constitution (Article 16.2.3) requires that the ratio of TDs to population, "as ascertained at the last preceding census", shall be, "so far as is practicable", the same throughout the country. The census of last April showed the population at 4,234,925, which works out at 25,512 per TD.

But there are large variations now between population-per-TD figures in several constituencies (see panel for variations).

The issues that arise are:

• What variation is allowed by the phrase "so far as practicable"?

• What is meant by "as ascertained by the last preceding census"?

In a High Court case in 1961, the judge said a deviation of more than five per cent from the average would probably be unconstitutional. If that is so, then all of the deviations shown on the panel would be unconstitutional.

But then, the other question arises: what is meant by the phrase "as ascertained by the last preceding census"? The results, published on Wednesday 19 July, are in a report which is stated to be "preliminary". The introduction states these are "provisional results". It goes on to state: "As these results are subject to revision they should not be regarded as having statutory force."

But previous "provisional results" have been shown to be accurate to within a very small margin of error. We know therefore that the 2006 census has ascertained that there are very wide variations in the populations per member in constituencies around the country. Whether the Supreme Court would so find is unknowable. Probably not.

Were the constituencies to be revised to accommodate these census outcomes, the following would probably happen in some of the constituencies affected:

Kerry and Donegal would be changed from two three-seaters to one five-seater (Labour would lose a seat in Kerry, which it will probably lose anyway to Fine Gael, so Fine Gael would be the loser, and in Donegal, Sinn Féin would be almost certain to take a seat, with Independent Fianna Fáil losing out).

Dún Laoghaire would lose a seat, with Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats fighting for the fourth seat – Fianna Fáil, Labour and probably Fine Gael taking the three others.

In Cork North Central Fianna Fáil would lose a seat.

Dublin North East and Dublin North Central would probably be merged into a five-seat constituency, with Fianna Fáil losing a seat.

Limerick East would lose population to Limerick West and thereby it would lose a seat – the Progressive Democrats would be the losers, but as they are expected to lose this seat anyway to Fine Gael, the latter would be the actual loser.

In Dublin North, Fianna Fáil would probably retain its second seat, for the constituency would get an extra seat.

Overall, it is difficult to predict at this stage the overall effect of a constituency revision, because so much would depend on how the boundaries were redrawn.

The following are some of the more extreme examples (the percentage figure is the percentage of the average of 25,512):

Dún Laoghaire: 22,787 – 89%

Cork North-Central: 22,842 – 90%

Kerry North: 23,128 – 91%

Dublin North East: 23,234 – 91%

Kerry South: 23,411 – 92%

Sligo-North Leitrim: 23,591 – 92%

Limerick East: 23,617 – 93%

Donegal South West: 23,657 – 93%

Dublin South: 23,709 – 93%

Limerick West: 23,711 – 93%

Cavan-Monaghan: 23,955 – 94%

Kildare South: 27,034 – 106%

Louth: 27,724 – 109%

Meath West: 27,836 – 109%

Meath East: 28,881 – 113%

Dublin North: 29,996 – 117%

Dublin West: 30,933 – 121%