The population growth seen in the preliminary census figures points to more TDs and extensive boundary changes, writes Dr Adrian Kavanagh, Department of Geography

The provisional population-by-area Census 2022 were published yesterday (23 June 2022), showing a population level within the state of 5,123,536, and marking a notable increase (of 173,613 – 7.6%) on the population level recorded for the 2016 Census (4,761,865).
 
These are, of course, only provisional figures, but the provisional figures – especially for large geographical areas – tend to be usually very accurate; for instance, the provisional Census 2016 published back in July 2016 only under-estimated the national population figure (as published almost a year later in the final/definitive Census 2016 population-by-area figures) by 3,889 people, 0r 0.08%.)  
 
This now leaves an average population of 32,022.1 per Dáil Deputy across the State (for the current 160-Dáil seat context). Given that the Constitution explicitly states that the population per TD ratio nationally must not exceed 30,000 (or indeed fall below 20,000), this means that the smallest number of Dáil deputies, which can be envisaged in the upcoming Constituency Commission review of/report on Dáil constituency boundaries, is 171 (and the largest number is 256!). It is important to note that the 30,000 limit in terms of the population per TD ratio does not apply to individual general election constituencies.
 
A 171 seat level would already ensure a much higher number of seats in contrast with the current membership of 160 TDs of Dáil Éireann. The range of seats that the Constituency Commission (once it is established) will get to choose from, based on previous reports, will run from 171 to 179 seats.
 
To ensure that the national seat level does not have to change again in a subsequent report in line with expected further growth in the national population level – the Commission is likely to opt for a number at the upper end of this scale (as they did for the 2012 report).

Hence, the extent of the boundary changes that will be required will be more extensive than those required for any earlier boundary report, at least over the period since the introduction of independent commissions following the failure of the “Tullymander” at the 1977 General Election.
 
A new Constituency Commission report must be published within three months of the publication of the definitive Census population-by-area figures, which were published almost a year after the holding of the census in the case of the 2016 Census figures. So, there may well be a wait of up to one year before the new report is published.
 
Where will the new seats go to?

Looking at the geographical trends in terms of population and population change levels that are evident in these provisional Census 2022 figures, the following seat gains might be expected:
 

  • Five more seats for the Dublin region, with at least two of these seats going to the constituencies located in Fingal County (this may require the creation of a new constituency within the Fingal County area)
  • Two more seats for Cork
  • Two more seats for the Midlands region, with the likelihood of an extra seat for Longford-Westmeath (in addition to the return of the Delvin area from Meath West) and the re-creation of the Laois and Offaly three-seat constituencies
  • Two more seats to be shared out between Kildare and Meath, especially if the east Meath area is returned from the Louth constituency
  • One more seat for the Galway-Mayo region
  • Seat gains for the following five-seat constituencies; Carlow-Kilkenny, Wexford, Tipperary, and Donegal, as well as Dublin Fingal (as noted above)

 
Unless a new Electoral Act allows for a change in the terms of reference for the Commission, the number of seats that can be in any Dáil constituency will range from three to five. As it stands, this may result in an enforced number of county boundary breaches, with, for instance, the territory being moved from Laois to Offaly and from Kilkenny to Carlow to allow for sufficient population to sustain three-seat constituencies in Carlow and Offaly.
 
Some larger counties, such as Wexford, Donegal, and Tipperary, would need to be split into two three-seat constituencies to account for population growth and the overall increase in Dáil seat numbers. Such moves would also lead to an overall increase in the number of three-seat constituencies and notably reduce district magnitude levels within the State, thus effectively reducing the overall level of proportionality.
 
The potential to have six-seat constituencies, however, would mean that a number of county boundary breaches would be avoided, as well as a mushrooming in the number of smaller, and hence less proportional, three-seat constituencies. If a new Electoral Act was brought in to change the terms of reference for the Constituency Commission to allow them to use six-seat constituencies, even if in a limited number of cases, this would by no means be a bad thing!