The Program for Government: a possible mandate for a gerrymander?

An interesting constitutional problem, thrown up by the outcome of the local elections, which has not as yet been covered in the mainstream media is that no government comprised of FF and any likely set of partners can now to command a majority in the Seanad after the next general election.

Even if they were to form a government with someone like the Labour party, they would end up falling just short. Forming a government with anyone else from SF to the Greens and independents or all of the above does not even come close to a Seanad majority, even with the Taoiseach’s 11 thrown in.I recall some casual references to this amongst friends at the time of the local elections counts about how this would impact on the Seanad and a few people have written about it on-line Michael Cosgrave for one but no one in the mainstream press that I can find. It could be that the story wasn’t sexy or imminent enough when the counts were happening and then simply fell off the radar. Yet it has important implications in that FF would only be able to claim a partial victory in the next general election no matter what happens in the Dail.

Coupled with this are effects within the FF organisation with the knowledge that the lifeboats that would be available to those who lost out will be much reduced. Looking back over recent electoral history I can’t find FF ever going below 17 seats even in opposition; they did have only 11 Senators in 1954 which was a time of considerable electoral turmoil with new parties being formed. With the surety of 20 or so Seanad seats on the back of their storing local presence, FF was always able to install a mixture of Senators who had different roles: some were bright new prospects for the next general election and there were those who had been just deposed but who still might make it back, and then there were a couple of Seanad only heads. With only a dozen seats now likely to be available if they were not in government that mixture simply would not be possible. And the role of HQ in selecting candidates would again come under scrutiny with such limited chances of success.

Looking at the change in numbers in more detail, in 2007 of the major parties FF had 556 votes, FG had 385 votes and Labour had 129 votes. After the changed landscape of the local elections of 2009, it is now likely that FF would have 218 cllrs + the new Dail members and those outgoing 28 Senators. On current polls that would be under 300 votes, even exceeding the polls would leave them only on about 320.

FG in contrast would start with circa 340 votes from the councils alone and perhaps another 80 to 90 more votes from new TDs and outgoing members of the Seanad ending up well north of 400 perhaps even a possibly 420 or more. Lab could have 160/170 votes from councils and TDs. The remaining 200 odd votes are scattered across SF, smaller parties and independents; a good number of who are FF gene pool so there is a bit of hope for the party. Yet even in the best case scenario that the next election was to throw up the unlikely possibility that the Dail was to be returned exactly as it is now FF would still start with little more than 300 votes in the Seanad elections and would struggle to maintain even close to the number of outgoing Seanad members they had.

I’ve done some rough sums below and am in the process of running through the previous election with the new numbers to confirm this outcome. I’ve started with the scenario most benign to current government as the current Dail arithmetic is preserved, and the same rough proportions of non-aligned councillors and Oireachtas members as before to support the FF, FG and Lab candidates. SF continues to lack the votes to get anyone elected on their own and it would seem with Labour no longer requiring their support that they would be on their own. The reason the alignment of independent is so benign is that post the general election and with a government formed of the Greens and PDs, independents would be more inclined to support a FF Seanad candidate as they would necessarily have access to the levers of power. So it is possible that it could get worse.
Guide: Panel Name Total Number of Seats/ Current seat allocation and Quota in 2007

Cultural and Educational Panel 5 / FF 3 FG 1 Lab 1 Quota 179
FF might even struggle to elect 2 in the 5 seater Cultural and Educational Panel where they got 3 the last time. It’s that bad for them. More likely is for them to get the 2 though.

Administrative Panel 7 seats / FF 4 FG 2 Lab 1 Quota 134
FF would solidly have the votes for 2 seats but beyond that for 3 seats could be a real problem. Not an insurmountable one as while there are no PDs and only 2 Greens, there are a few ex PD cllrs and gene pool FFers to round things out. But if there is an insurrection about candidate selection and too divided and internal competitive a ticket then that 3rd seat would slip away.

Agricultural Panel 11 / FF 5 FG 4 Lab 1 SF 1 Quota 90
3 seats should be safe here but the 4th is likely to be a bridge to fair.

Industrial and Commercial Panel 9 / FF 5 FG 3 Lab 1 Quota 107
FG would start with 4 in the bag and likely another one

Labour Panel 11 / FF 5 FG 4 Lab 2 quota 90
FG would have 5 here and possibly 6 if FF were to end up swapping places with them on 3 seats with Lab most likely getting 2.

Likely Outcomes
So FF would be looking at getting from the Labour panel 3 + Ag Panel 3 + C&E 1/2 Admin 2 + I & C 2/3 leading to a worst case situation of 11 seats and a best case of 13. So even adding in the Taoiseach’s nominees of 11 they would have a minority in the Seanad come what may. A period of cohabitation would be in order. The most likely outcome is 12 seats.

FG would have Labour panel 5/6 + Ag Panel 5/6 + C&E 2/3 Admin 3/4 + I & C 4/5 Worst case 19 Best case 24. Most likely

Lab would be able to get only the same one seat per panel this time though this time without needing the assistance of SF. Without the help of Labour SF would most likely lose their one seat as it is hard to see the various independent and the more generally left leaning groupings giving SF the advantage of a Seanad seat.

Is it absolutely impossible for FF and Lab to get enough for the Taoiseach’s 11 to bring them over the top? No. But is it likely? A strong no is the answer to that too.

I had been looking at this for a few weeks now but I have to wonder what implications this has on the new Electoral Commission’s (as announced in the PfG document) plans to yet again report on a new electoral system for the Seanad. Might a charge of gerrymandering be levelled at the new Program for Government? This charge would be most easily made if the changes result in FF and the Greens being able to dilute the influence of the local authority members on the Seanad make-up. A not unreasonable idea but it would be a real pity if this idea came to be seen as FF changing the goalposts once they could no longer win.

  • The number of genuinely useful senators can be counted on one hand in a bad year, two in a good one. Abolish it and save a ton of money.

  • Nice analysis, it does indeed look pretty grim for FF.

    If I remember the Seanad can only delay bills possible making Governance impossible or at least horribly delayed by forever sending bills back. Is this the case ?

  • Anonymous

    The Senate is normally extremely weak. At most it can delay an ordinary bill for 90 days, and a bill concerning the budget for 20 days. Even these periods can be reduced if the government declares that a bill is “urgent”.

    However it has one little known power that could become significant. A majority of Senators can petition the President to veto a bill unless it is approved in a referendum. (For details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinary_referendum).

    Mary McAleese is unlikely to ever agree to this, as she is a Fianna Fail president, but her term ends in 2011. So if FF wins the next Dail election but loses control of both the Senate and the presidency there would be the possibility of a real confrontation between the Dail and the Senate.