Why does Ireland use Proportional Representation?

Why are general elections in Ireland held using Proportional Representation?

It would surprise many to discover that the use of Single Transferable Vote in Ireland was legislated for by the British Parliament in Westminster when Ireland was partitioned in the wake of the War of Independence.

Previously elections in Ireland had been held using the First Past The Post System used in the the rest of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as it was then.

It is not surprising that nobody either side of the Irish Sea wants to talk about this.

An experiment in Sligo

A key turning point in the adoption of PR was its use in 1919 to elect a new local council in the small town of Sligo.

The Corporation’s finances had fallen into a state and more revenue needed to be raised. However the local ratepayers (only the better off citizens had to pay rates) were local businessmen and landowners, most of whom were Protestants and Unionists (supporters of continued rule from London).

Before the reform of local government in 1898 these people had run things without any democratic oversight, but the Local Government Act of 1898 had changed this.

It established local councils which were elected in the same way as Britain, by First Past The Post.

Across Ireland it meant that the old Unionists, who only made up about ten percent (the richest 10%!) were brushed aside as Catholics voted for Irish nationalists. And in Sligo First Past The Post left the Unionists with not a single councillor.

So when extra revenue had to be raised the ratepayers objected. They demanded representation on the council.

Various schemes, such as cooption, were suggested to increase Unionist representation but it was a form of Proportional Representation, the Single Transferable Vote, in which ones votes for candidates in order of preference (1,2,3,4 etc), which was thought to be the most democratic, and therefore bringing most legitimacy.

Proportional Representation as a solution to the question Ireland’s divided communities already had widespread support, particularly amongst (seemingly paradoxically) southern Unionists and Republicans. Arthur Griffith was an enthusiast and Sinn Fein had in 1912 adopted it, in common with nearly all radicals in Europe. STV it might be noted, also had support across the political spectrum in Britain at the time. The third Home Rule Bill had even been amended to include a Senate elected by STV.

With support from all sections of the community a private members bill for a special election in Sligo using STV was passed by the British Parliament in 1918.

The election for a new corporation was held in January 1919. It returned 8 councillors for the (cross-denominational) Ratepayers Association, 7 for Sinn Fein, 5 for Labour and 4 independents.

In a country increasingly bitterly divided by arguments over Home Rule and its relationship to Britain, the election was hailed as a success. Irish Nationalists and Republicans favoured the new system, as did Unionists in most of the rest of the island. Only the Unionists in the north east of the country opposed its introduction. They were dead set against anything which allowed for the fair representation of Catholics in the northern counties, which they wanted to break away from the rest of the country.

So when a new Local Government Act for Ireland was passed by Westminster in 1919 it included a provision for elections to be held using STV. Elections then went ahead in January 1920 and Sinn Fein won most councillors.

Republican landslide

By that time though the country was in the throes of a War of Independence.

The end of the First World War had caused a general election to be called in what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the first since 1910. Much had changed since then. Home a Rule for Ireland, as proposed by by the pre-war Liberal government seemed dead in the water, killed by Unionist opposition and the Liberals failure to face it down. Ireland’s Catholic population had also been embittered by the bloody crushing of the Easter Rising in 1916 and the attempt to impose conscription in 1918.

Both resulted in a surge of support for a previously marginal party, Sinn Fein, which wanted an Irish Republic and total independence from Britain.

This support was amplified in the first post war election by something which hadn’t changed, the British electoral system.

There had been moves to get rid of the First Past The Post system, and indeed during the passage of the the Representation of the People Act (which finally gave the vote to all men, and most women in the UK) the House of Commons had voted for Alternative Vote system to be introduced. But then the Lords voted, contrariwise, opted for Single Transferable Vote. In the end the Labour and the divided Liberal factions did not press the matter and for lack of agreement between the Houses the matter was dropped. First Past The Post endured.

So when country went to the polls the old Irish nationalist party (which favoured Home Rule within the UK, and which had dominated Irish politics for forty years despite not achieving it) was wiped out retaining just a handful of MPs.

Sinn Fein took half the vote but it won 73 of Ireland’s 103 seats in the House of Commons.

They never took their them. Instead they (or at least the 27 who were not in prison or exile) sat in Dublin and declared themselves to be the sovereign Dáil (Assembly) of an independent Irish Republic. It was not recognised by London though and a guerrilla war between the British and the Dáil backed Irish Republican Army followed.

Meanwhile Westminster acted as if nothing had happened and passed in 1920 yet another Bill for Home Rule in Ireland, the Government of Ireland Act. This had provision for two parliaments, one in Belfast to govern a Protestant dominated state and one in Dublin to govern the rest of the country. Both were to be elected by STV as a means to ensure the representation of minorities, Catholics in the north east and Protestants n the elsewhere. Like its unimplemented predecessor, the so-called Third Home a Rule Act, it allowed for the northern parliament to opt out of Ireland and to create a Protestant dominated statelet.

Compromise and partition

By mid 1921 it was clear that neither the British nor the Republicans could win a decisive victory and the both sides were forced to the table. The British government seemed to have most of the cards though. They threatened total war, and the Irish government were not prepared to test them. They agreed to a settlement that stopped short of a Republic. They were offered dominion status under the British Crown, similar to Canada and Australia. It was not the Republic they had fought for, and the martyrs of 1916 had died for. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

At a practical, and constitutional level, it meant that the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act. Elections had already been held under it in May 1921 for a Southern and Northern House of Commons.

In the south the vote was treated as a referendum on independence and nobody stood against Sinn Fein’s candidates, who then won all 124 seats unopposed. The only seats they didn’t win were the four seats representing Trinity College graduates, which the Unionists won unopposed. The Sinn Fein MPs never took their seats and instead sat as the second Dáil.

In the North the elections were contested and were fought under STV. The result was not fair representation of the the Catholic minority vote. It split between the old nationalist party (Ulster being the only part of the country where it had survived) and the Republicans. The Unionists took 90% of the seats.

Following the signing of the Treaty between the Irish and British governments there was another election to the southern parliament again under STV. This then became the third Dáil which sitting as a Constituent Assembly drew up a Constitution, which retained STV.

Sinn Fein took 94 of the 124 seats in this election, the only substantial opposition coming from the infant Labour Party which won 17 seats. But Sinn Fein was now spilt down the middle over whether to accept the proposed treaty with Britain and a brief, but bitter, civil war followed. It was won, with help from Britain, by the pro-Treaty government. This wing of the party would later become Fine Gael.

Defeated Republicans then boycotted the new state institutions created by the treaty. Once it became clear however that they were here to stay however they, for the most part, took the oath of allegiance to the Crown and rejoined the political process as a new party, Fianna Fáil.

The rival parties coming out of the Civil War were to dominate the rest of the century politically. They did eventually break the constitutional link with Britain and became an sovereign and independent Republic. The country also however laboured under a conservative consensus as both parties accommodated to the powers that be, and above the Catholic Church. It has only been in the last two decades that this reactionary settlement broke apart.

But neither of the big parties was ever to achieve total hegemony (though Fianna Fail may have wanted to, and came pretty close). They have also faced repeated challenges from left, right and nationalist parties, challengers who in the recent election may have finally broken the system apart.

No democracy in the north

The statelet of Northern Ireland, technically part of Britain, but always different, had an even less happy history.

The province’s the landowners and industrialists, who had long been integrated into the British ruling class, once it became clear that Home Rule, at the very least, was coming to Ireland, had been determined to create a Protestant dominated fiefdom.

They abolished STV at the first opportunity and restored First Past The Post, a system perfectly designed for the exclusion of minorities from power.

First the authorities in Belfast sent in commissioners to run Nationalist dominated councils. Then in July 1922 they abolished the use of STV in local elections and brought back First Past The Post. An Act passed by the Northern Ireland Parliament then gave the provinces Home Secretary (a staunch Unionist of course) the right to redraw electoral boundaries, a right which he used freely.

The work of gerrymandering was effective. After the next set of local elections in 1924 Unionists controlled just two of eighty local authorities, despite the fact that Catholics made up a third of the population and were actually the majority in three if the six counties of the new state (Ulster is actually made up of nine counties, but if all had been included in Northern Ireland the Unionists would have lost their majority). So egregious was their corruption of the electoral process that even Derry, which was two thirds Catholic, had a Protestant, Unionist council.

The construction of this anti-democratic state was bolstered by the creation of an all-Protestant, and armed police force, the RUC, which was backed up by second, par time, but armed, force, the B-Specials.

The result was forty years of, effectively, one party rule by the Ulster Unionist Party and the creation of a sectarian state. The situation could not endure forever and at the end of the 1960s the Catholic population rebelled, leading to another forty years of resistance known as the Troubles.