Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has been accused of trying to “gerrymander” local boundaries to suit Fine Gael at the expense of Independents, amid plans to reduce the number of seats per constituency.
The proposal for smaller electoral areas has drawn a fierce response from the Independent Alliance within Government, who feel it would see up to 70 Independent councillors lose seats.
However, Mr Murphy is growing increasingly frustrated as time is running short to allow new boundaries to be in place at least a year ahead of the next election in 2019.
The stand-off has led to sharp exchanges in meetings between ministers in recent days, it has been confirmed.
“Things are at a delicate stage. The difficulty is that we have been trying to bring this forward for a number of weeks,” a Fine Gael source has said.
“It has been tricky to get certain people to agree to the terms of reference, which are for an independent committee to go off and draw up new boundaries. The argument that Independents would lose out is based on a misunderstanding of how this works. Their argument does not stand up to scrutiny.”
Mr Murphy is intending bringing a memorandum to Cabinet tomorrow on the matter, but Independent Alliance ministers insisted the matter is not yet resolved and three Alliance members have confirmed their displeasure with the proposal.
“I would be concerned that if you reduce the size of constituencies, it is the large parties like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who will gain and it is the smaller parties and Independents who will lose out,” said Seán Canney.
At one meeting in recent days, Mr Murphy went “toe to toe” with OPW Minister Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran.
“Boxer told Murphy that there are 190 commitments in the Programme for Government which are of more importance than this one,” said one source.
The sharp exchanges were confirmed to the Irish Examiner by several sources, but those close to Mr Murphy and Mr Moran say the two men work well together and have a good understanding.
The Programme for Government commits to considering reducing the size of local electoral areas.
The Irish Examiner, speaking to sources close to Mr Murphy and within the Independent Alliance, has learned Mr Murphy wants to establish a committee to redraw boundaries for the local elections in 2019.
“Minister Murphy is trying to bring that forward because councillors need to know where they are running at least a year out from the election, which is next May, so he has six months to get this done,” said a government source.
“The size of constituencies has been raised repeatedly as an issue by councillors from across the country and of all parties and none who have large geographic areas to represent. This is especially the case in rural, sparsely populated areas,” a government spokesman told the Irish Examiner.
Responding, Brendan Howlin, the Labour Party leader, said this is a deliberate strategy to shut out smaller parties and Independents from political debate.
“Of course the smaller the constituency, the more likely the larger parties will triumph. And clearly this is a strategy to reduce the diversity of opinion. We have a PR system; the larger the constituency the more representative it is,” Mr Howlin said.
He did accept that the decision to abolish town councils when Labour was in government was a mistake and should now be reversed. He said he is bringing forward a bill to make that happen in the coming weeks.
Joe Conway, an Independent Alliance councillor from Waterford who was present at one of the heated meetings, has accused Mr Murphy of an “old fashioned gerrymander”.
Mr Conway said Mr Murphy, if successful, will “take out” up to 40% of the 200 or so Independent councillors serving constituents in practically all the State’s local authorities.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved