Does Ireland use proportional representation?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 11th December 2018

Ireland has a long history of using proportional representation and, specifically, the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

STV is the Electoral Reform Society’s preferred electoral system. Rather than one person representing everyone in a small area, bigger areas elect a small group of representatives. Voters put the candidates in order, from the ones they like to the ones they don’t. The results more closely reflect how people vote.

The adoption of STV for the Irish lower chamber (Dáil Éireann) was closely linked with the birth of the Irish state and the need to allow for the representation of different and minority interests. STV was first trialled in a special election for Sligo Corporation in January 1919, an experience which The Irish Times hailed as a ‘magna carta’ for political minorities.

STV soon became an intrinsic part of Irish politics. In 1920, it was used for local elections and enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act. Following independence, STV was adopted for national elections in 1922 and its use was entrenched in the Irish Constitution, ratified by the people in a referendum on 1 July 1937.

Ireland has held two referendums on its electoral system – in 1959 and 1968. Both were called by Fianna Fáil in an attempt to move back to Westminster’s disproportional ‘First Past the Post’ system – a proposal opposed by all other parties. The Electoral Reform Society and, in particular, its Director, Enid Lakeman played a role in the campaign defending Ireland’s traditional system of proportional representation during both campaigns.

Despite these attempts, voters twice rejected a return to First Past the Post – with a majority of 52% in 1959, which increased to 61% in the 1968 referendum. Ireland’s experience with STV shows how, once voters have experienced proportional representation, there is very little appetite to revert back to First Past the Post.

In addition to Ireland, STV is used for elections in Malta and to the Australian Senate. In the UK, it is used in Scottish local elections and all sub-national elections in Northern Ireland.

STV puts powers back into the hands of the public. It guarantees proportionality, while offering voters maximum choice in candidates and maintaining a strong local link.

Because voters can rank all candidates in order of preference, few votes are ‘wasted’ – unlike in First Past the Post elections where the majority of votes often do not contribute to the result. Voters can choose between candidates from the same or different parties, which incentivises parties to stand candidates who reflect the diversity of society. Electors can also vote for independent candidates, without worrying about ‘wasting’ their vote. The current Dáil Éireann, for example, includes 23 independent MPs (15% of the total).

The strong local link means that representatives are incentivised towards a high level of constituency service. The ERS’s report on the 2016 Irish general election, for example, showed how election campaigns in Ireland are highly localised partly as a result of the voting system.

All of these factors make STV far more reflective of popular feeling than our current, outdated voting system.

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