With the decks being cleared for the election (or re-election) of our first citizen for the next seven years, it is instructive to recall a referendum whose result would have changed the face of Irish politics forever half a century ago.
Since 1921, we had used the Proportional Representation system for Dáil elections, a system which allowed constituencies to return several members and which, crucially, gave smaller parties a better chance of winning representation. But now, in 1968, the Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fáil government proposed to abolish the old system and to replace it with the UK’s ‘First Past The Post’ arrangement. This would allow but one TD for each constituency, with the candidate receiving the most votes winning the seat.
The arguments were put forward with persuasive intent. ‘There’s someone we’d like you to meet more often; your TD’ went the Fianna Fáil advertising pitch, pointing out that multi-seat constituencies were too big for a TD to get to know his constituents, their needs and concerns. Smaller, single-seat constituencies would change all that, the blurb went. In addition, voters would have the benefit of a new, simple system of direct voting ‘instead of the confusing 1-2-3-4-5-6 of the present system’.
Well aware that the UK system had led to a two-party, polarised outcome, where the smaller parties struggled to get a look in, the opposition mounted a spirited resistance to the changes. Fine Gael appealed to the public to vote no, while it still had a chance. Branding the proposed change as a blatant grab for dictatorship, Fine Gael warned that, with 40 percent of the vote, Fianna Fáil would take 70 percent of the seats under the proposed new system.
‘The straight vote is simple, fair and democratic’, argued Fianna Fáil. ‘The straight vote is crooked, so vote no’, countered the Labour Party.
In the end, the electorate remained wary. The proposal was roundly rejected, by a 60-40 majority, with only four constituencies (Clare, Galway West and the two in Donegal), siding with Fianna Fáil. The public, it proved, liked the old system, for all its supposed complications.
In simple terms, it was not convinced that a candidate who might take only 40 percent of the vote should automatically take the seat, simply because the remaining 60 percent might have been fragmented among the other candidates. Fianna Fáil licked its wounds and went back to the business of winning elections under the shackles of the old system.
Perhaps the party should have known better. Nine years earlier, in 1959, at what seemed a most propitious time for the party, De Valera had attempted to ditch the PR system in favour of the straight-vote formula, a move that would have all but guaranteed Fianna Fáil hegemony for years to come.
That referendum was held on the same day as the Presidential election, which must have been a bitter sweet experience for the victor. De Valera won the presidency by a 56-44 majority over the Fine Gael nominee, Seán McEoin, but his plea to the public for a new voting system was rejected by a majority of 52 to 48. It was a vote that clearly divided the country, with the west, from Donegal to Kerry, supporting De Valera, only to be outweighed by the ‘No’ vote of the eastern half.
Dev, it was said, would have gladly traded the prize of Áras an Uachtarain for the electoral copper fastening, which the referendum would have given Fianna Fáil. But it was not to be, and within a decade, the country would repeat even more decisively its rejection of the straight-vote system.