It is the aim of this essay to investigate whether or not the system of pr-stv elects a Dail whose members are overly preoccupied with local issues to the exclusion of developing policy expertise

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It is the aim of this essay to investigate whether or not the system of PR-STV elects a Dail whose members are overly preoccupied with local issues to the exclusion of developing policy expertise. In order to facilitate this aim the essay will recount briefly the history of PR-STV in relation to Ireland. The essay will continue with an outline of the main criticisms of PR-STV while offering some responses to this criticism. The essay will then underline some of the positive aspects of PR-STV. The essay will conclude that PR-STV is the best form of electoral system for the Republic of Ireland and that it should not be changed. The essay will argue that the system of PR-STV does not elect a Dail whose members are overly preoccupied with local issues to the exclusion of developing policy expertise. It will argue that PR-STV is an electoral system which most closely reflects the political culture of Ireland.
PR-STV was developed in the 1850’s by both Carl Andrae in Denmark and by Thomas Hare in England. As an electoral means of representing minorities in government, PR-STV came to have particular relevance in Ireland due to the sizable Protestant minority in Ireland and also due to the lobbying for Home Rule by Irish nationalists. PR-STV was seen as a way of placating Protestant Unionist opposition to Home Rule. However, it was not until 1918 that PR-STV was enacted and in January 1919 Sligo corporation became the first local council to hold an election under the new provisions. Indeed, not long after PR-STV was introduced in the 1920 local elections by the British government (Sinnott, 2005, pp. 107).

Sinnott points out that the Irish electorate have endorsed the use of PR-STV on no less than three separate occasions; in the 1937 constitution and through two referenda in 1959 and 1968 (Sinnott, 2005, pp.107-108). Indeed, PR-STV is the only electoral system the Irish electorate has known since the founding of the state.

One of the great criticisms which is levelled at PR-STV (proportional representation by the single transferable vote) is that it fosters a culture of clientelism in the political system. It is argued that PR-STV forces TDs to spend more of their time involved in constituency and local issues to the detriment of their national legislative role. Indeed, Fianna Fail TD Noel Dempsey argued as much in an article in the Irish Times newspaper in 1999 entitled; “System turns TDs into messenger boys” (Irish Times, 26 July 1999). In this article Dempsey complains that “we constantly decry that Ireland elects people to legislate, to provide rigorous opposition to the legislators of the time, yet shrug off that the overwhelming majority of those elected spend vast amounts of time as inefficient constituency messenger boys” (Irish Times, 26 July 1999).

Indeed, Willie O’Dea, a colleague of Noel Dempsey, backed up Dempsey’s argument when he wrote “the garnering of a few dozen medical cards is more vital to political survival than any creative, well-researched Dail speech on health service reform” (McDonald, 1999, on blackboard). In this sense, O’Dea and Dempsey would look to be in agreement. This highlights that at least two politicians believe that the PR-STV electoral system forces TDs to become overly preoccupied with local constituency work to the exclusion of developing policy expertise. In short, they believe that the PR-STV electoral system helps foster clientelism within the political system. Dempsey puts forward this argument as a reason for electoral reform. He infers that changing the electoral system will bring about change in the culture of clientelism and will result in TDs having more time to spend legislating on national issues.

However, the argument that the PR-STV electoral system detracts from public representatives’ ‘true’ work is not confined to politicians decrying about their workloads in the newspapers but has long been an issue of debate in academic circles as well. In essence, the argument against PR-STV is that it “imposes patterns of behaviour that TDs must follow for their own electoral survival, promoting a focus on constituency work” (Gallagher, 2005, pp.525) and “that these patterns weaken the national parliament and, because under the Irish constitution all ministers are required to be members of parliament, they also interfere with the business of government” (Gallagher, 2005, pp. 526). Therefore, a politician must engage in constituency work due to the fact that if they do not they won’t get elected. This results in “the clientelist emphasis of the parliamentarians” (Farrell, 2001, pp.144). Indeed, Farrell describes this process best:
The second apparent problem with STV relates to how political life in Ireland is predominated by a brokerage style of politics…Parliamentarians work their parish pumps, attracting votes by a heavy emphasis on constituency social work and localist concerns…More time seems to be spent in the Dail signing letters to constituents and raising constituency matters in question time than with the weightier matters of national legislation (Farrell, 2001, pp. 145).
The argument that PR-STV brings about this result is predicated on the belief that multi-seat constituencies in which one party may run a number of candidates in the same constituency causes extreme intra-party competition. Sinnott argues that the difficulty with which these competing candidates have in differentiating themselves from each other, given that they are from the same party and, therefore, hold the same party policy, the same party leadership and the same party record in government, means that, in the end, their only option in differentiating themselves from each other is by competing on their constituency service (Sinnott, 2005, pp.121). The argument is, therefore, that PR-STV not only encourages but exacerbates the pressure on politicians to engage in political brokerage and local constituency matters to the detriment of their jobs as national legislators.

However, to what extent is it the electoral system that causes this outcome? Could other factors be responsible for the over-emphasis on constituency matters that PR-STV critics emphasise? Indeed, rather than have a top down approach to explaining this phenomenon; that PR-STV causes politicians to spend more time on local matters to the detriment of legislating for national policy, could there not be an argument to explain the phenomenon from the bottom up; that Irish political culture dictates that constituency work is an important part of what is expected of politicians who run for election to the Dail?

Indeed, R.K. Carty explains clientelist politics as “characterized by particularistic, ascriptive, and individualistic orientations to action rather than by the values of universalism, achievement, and collectivism generally associated with modernity…patron-client structures are viewed as the natural developmental outcomes in societies where peasant values and social institutions exist” (Carty, 1981, pp. 9). In essence, Carty is saying that clientelist politics occurs in societies not affected by modernisation; where the basic pre-modern structure of society (peasant society and values) is dominant. In effect, cultural norms are reflected in Irish social relationships and that these norms encourage and esteem highly personalised contact when involved in particular exchanges (Carty, 1981, pp.22). In this sense, therefore, an Irish person expects, in the context of a particular issue e.g. entitlement to a medical card, access to their constituency representative(s) as a conduit to resolving their particular concern with regards the state. As Carty points out:

As in other polities marked by a peasant culture, the conservative, parochial, fiercely individualistic electors seem more concerned with claiming specific governmental outputs than with the provision of collective goods or the general shape of public policy. Deeply ingrained is the conviction that the government can be successfully tapped for needed goods and services, but only if approached through an intermediary of influence (Carty, 1981, pp. 22-23).

Paradoxically, this hints at the duality of roles of the politician; as a representative of their particular constituency and intermediary between the citizen and the state and, also, as the state’s representative to the citizenry. Thus, the difficulties of maintaining political support in this society means that the politician has to take on the role of both political and social broker (Carty, 1981, pp. 23). The politician must take on a duality of roles.

However, this political culture, therefore, has serious implications and effects on intra-party competition within constituencies. The fact that parties run multiple candidates in multi-seat constituencies means that candidates from the same party find themselves in direct and often extreme competition with one another. This forces each candidate to create their own personal, parochial political machine with the explicit motivation of garnering votes for favours. Such a machine cannot be shared with a party colleague running in that constituency and so, therefore, that politician must also set up a personal, parochial political machine. As a result, intra-party competition becomes widespread (Carty, 1981, pp.23). This means that clientelist politics; that of “local brokers competing for a party vote has become institutionalised in Ireland by the electoral system” (Carty, 1981, pp.134).

However, if PR-STV has an effect on whether or not it influences and creates clientelism within the political system, then there should be international evidence that this is so. Indeed, David Farrell investigated this very theme. Farrell examined STV in Australia where the upper house of parliament is elected by STV and the lower house of parliament is elected by alternative vote. He examined whether or not STV had a bearing on the prevalence of clientelist politics. Farrell uncovered some interesting results. He found that of the two houses of parliament there was a higher constituency emphasis among the lower house who are elected under the alternative vote system rather than the upper house who are elected by STV (Farrell, 2001, pp.146-147). This indicates that the theory which posits that there is more of an emphasis placed on constituency work in countries that have a PR-STV electoral system is not accurate and, that in the very least, there must be other factors influencing why, in Ireland, there is such emphasis on doing constituency work. Farrell goes so far as to say that “the international evidence does not support the linkage between STV and brokerage politics” (Farrell, 2001, pp. 146). Indeed, as Sinnott explains:
It is clear that the constituency service role is due to a number of different factors, and it is likely that the electoral system is a contributory factor but not the main determinant (Sinnott, 2005, pp. 123-124).
Therefore, the political brokerage and clientelism which is evident in the Irish political system does not necessarily occur because of PR-STV but “it is likely that this aspect is one which is primarily related to the nature of Irish political culture rather than the electoral system” (McKee, 1983, pp. 187).
Indeed, PR-STV can be very positive. The fact that Irish political culture demands close links between politicians and their constituents is not necessarily a bad thing (Gallagher, 2005, pp. 526). The main advantage of the close relationship between a politician and the politician’s constituents is the fact that the politician will be kept aware and up to date of the real issues and problems of constituents. This insight can better help to guide the politician and enhance the level of input the politician may have in contributing to legislation in the future and, by extension, assists in the accountability of the system (Sinnott, 2005, pp. 124).

This goes some way to argue that no matter what electoral system was prevalent in Ireland, the political culture would demand that politicians should undertake much constituency work. In fact, Michael Gallagher argues that there is “no reason to suppose that matters would be much different under a different electoral system” (Gallagher, 2005, pp. 525). To sum up, therefore, there is an acknowledgment that clientelist politics and political brokerage exist on a wide scale in Ireland and that while PR-STV definitely has an input into the prevalence of clientelism and brokerage in Ireland, it is not the sole and isolated reason that this is the case. Indeed, the existence of political clientelism and brokerage is more likely due to the political culture of Ireland and that this political culture has been institutionalised by the PR-STV electoral system. As such, political clientelism and brokerage and the emphasis on constituency work for politicians would still be prevalent in another electoral system.

In conclusion, this essay has recounted a little of the history of the PR-STV electoral system with regard to Ireland. It has highlighted how PR-STV was the electoral system of choice, at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, for Ireland. This was due, in large part, to the belief that PR-STV provided the best possible representation for minorities in government and this was especially pertinent, in Ireland, for the sizable Protestant and Unionist minority when faced with the possible imposition of Home Rule in Ireland. To Irish Nationalists and Home Rule supporters PR-STV was recognised as a way of addressing Protestant and Unionist concerns about minority representation in a predominately Nationalist and Roman Catholic country.

The essay continued with a description of the main criticisms of PR-STV. It underlined the contention that PR-STV, through creating an environment in which politicians from the same party competed fiercely with each other for the same seats in multi-seat constituencies, exacerbated intra-party competition to the point where the only way candidates could be differentiated from each other was by creating and maintaining their own local political machines. These political machines have the express purpose of garnering votes for favours. As a result, candidates must place an extra emphasis on their constituency work in order to ensure they have a better chance of being elected. The criticism of PR-STV contends that candidates from the same political party, in particular, who have no discernible differences must differentiate themselves through their volume of constituency work and that this emphasis on constituency work subtracts from the time and attention they could, and by inference should, be putting into national legislative issues.

The essay then outlined a response to criticism of PR-STV. This argued that, while PR-STV can be a contributing factor to exacerbating the emphasis of politicians to engage in excessive constituency work, it is not the sole attributable factor. The essay outlined how political culture in Ireland has a defining role in explaining why politicians must engage in constituency work. The essay argued that the culture of political brokerage was expected and that this was due to the high value placed on personal relationships within the social norms of Irish society. This reflects a need for contact of the personal when dealing with the institutional structures of the state. This places a value and emphasis on social and personal relationships when dealing with the bureaucratised and rigid rules of modern state institutions.

The essay continued by pointing out that the increased emphasis on constituency work is not, by itself, a bad thing. It highlighted how it creates a connection between a politician and that politician’s constituency. It can enhance the politician’s knowledge and keep the politician informed of the central issues in the constituency. This information can assist the politician when drawing up legislation.

It is my personal view that PR-STV is the best form of electoral system for Ireland as it reflects the most closely the political culture of Ireland. There is no reason to believe that any other electoral system would change the emphasis placed on politicians to engage in constituency work as this stems, chiefly, from Irish political culture. As such, the best possible way in which to detract away the emphasis of politicians to engage in constituency work is to try to bring about a change in the political culture of Ireland rather than engage in reform of an electoral system which works well. Therefore, PR-STV alone does not elect a Dail whose members are overly preoccupied with local issues to the exclusion of developing policy expertise but rather, it is the political culture of Ireland which dictates that TDs engage in local issues and that PR-STV has helped to institutionalise this culture. In conclusion, PR-STV reflects the dictates of Irish political culture.


Carty, R.K. 1981. Party and Parish Pump: Electoral politics in Ireland. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Dempsey, Noel. ‘System turns TDs into messenger boys’, in The Irish Times 26 July 1999.
Farrell, David M. 2001. Electoral Systems: A comparative introduction. London: Palgrave.
Gallagher, Michael. 2005. ‘Ireland: The discreet charm of PR-STV’. In Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell (eds.). The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McDonald, Frank. ‘Response to Dempsey’, on blackboard.
McKee, Paul. 1983. ‘The Republic of Ireland’. In Vernon Bogdanor and David Butler (eds.). Democracy and Elections: Electoral systems and their political consequences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sinnott, Richard. 2005. ‘The Electoral System’. In John Coakley and Michael Gallagher (eds.). Politics in the Republic of Ireland. London: Routledge and PSAI Press.

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