How did the Republic of Ireland get proportional representation?

Peter Smart, former Lakeman Fellow

Posted on the 10th August 2022

Today, almost every election held on the island of Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Bar elections for the 18 Westminster seats from Northern Ireland – every other election, on both sides of the border, uses the system. In fact, the Republic of Ireland has successfully used STV for over 100 years. But how did Ireland leave behind First Past the Post?

The last UK general election in Ireland to use First Past the Post was in 1918. The poll was the first opportunity in eight years for the Irish people to make their voice known at the ballot box due to the First World War. The results marked a turning point in Irish politics due to the collapse in support for the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party, which had dominated the Irish political landscape since the 1880s, and a growth in support for the Sinn Féin party.

Under First Past the Post, Sinn Fein won a landslide – taking 73 out of 105 seats (69.5%) on just 47% of the vote.

The ‘question of Ireland’ was a contentious issue at the time and no UK prime minister wanted to be the one to ‘lose’ Ireland so, in an attempt to stem the influence of rising independence movement, the government passed the 1919 Local Government Act of Ireland. With First Past the Post benefitting Sinn Fein, this act would allow the use of proportional representation, specifically the Single Transferable Vote, in local elections. Rather than one person representing everyone in a ward, under STV, bigger wards elect a small team of representatives. This allows for results to more closely reflect the way the electorate voted.

It was hoped that the Local Government Act would stop Sinn Fein’s gaining seats out of proportion of their actual votes. But far from opposing the move, Sinn Fein took up the challenge and adopted proportional representation as part of their wider commitment to empowering the Irish people. In fact, Arthur Griffith, who founded Sinn Féin, had welcomed the foundation of the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland in 1911 (initially as a branch of the ERS, then known as the Proportional Representation Society).

STV would be first used at the local level in Ireland during the 1919 Sligo by-election. The outcome of the election was celebrated and Irish Times wrote that it was “a thoroughly workable system” and it provided the “Magna Carta of political and municipal minorities”.

In 1920, it was used for local elections and enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, although the House of Commons of Southern Ireland the act created was soon superseded by events in the War of Independence. STV was becoming an intrinsic part of Irish politics though.

Following independence, STV was adopted for Irish Free State elections in 1922 and its use was entrenched in the Irish Constitution, ratified by the people in a referendum on 1 July 1937.

Where there were challenges to the system, they were beaten. A referendum in 1958 was held in 1959 to switch the Republic of Ireland’s voting system back to the FPTP voting system. This proposal was narrowly rejected by 52% against to 48%. A second referendum was held on the same issue in 1968 which more decisively rejected the plans by 61% to 39%. The experience in the Republic of Ireland is one familiar the world over – once people become used to a proportional electoral system there is little appetite to switch back to First Past the Post.

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