There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The news that the Laois-Offaly constituency is to come to an end at the next general election, following the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, is an occasion to reflect on its long history.
Under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the constituency was established as King’s County-Queen’s County, a four-member constituency for the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, as it was then known to the British authorities.
It was first used in the 1921 election for the second Dáil. [ There was no actual polling as all 128 candidates were returned unopposed.] At various states, the constituency name was spelt as Leix-Offaly, Laoighis-Offaly until Laois-Offaly became official.
In the 2016 election, it was replaced by the separate constituencies of Laois and Offaly, but each of them contained parts of neighbouring counties, Laois constituency including parts of south Kildare and that of Offaly including parts of north Tipperary.
Brian Cowen at the 1989 General Election count.
The two were reunited in the 2020 election, excluding parts of both counties which voted in Kildare South. However, the significant growth in the population of both counties in the years since the last review means that the Laois-Offaly five-seater will be replaced by three-seaters in each case, both incorporating areas currently voting in Kildare South, so that the new constituency boundaries will reflect the county boundaries.
In 2011-16, parts of Offaly voted in the Tipperary North constituency, namely Aghancon, Barna, Cangort, Cullenwaine, Dunkerrin, Ettagh, Gorteen, Mountheaton, Shinrone and Templeharry, all of them in the former rural district of Roscrea No 2.
Tom Enright and Liam Hyland at the 1989 General election count.
In the 2020 election, Laois-Offaly included the county of Laois, with the exception of Ballybrittas, Jamestown, Kilmullen and Portarlington South, in the former rural district of Mountmellick, as well as the county of Offaly, with the exception of the electoral division of Portarlington North, in the former rural district of Tullamore.
However, as outlined here, the new constituency boundaries will reflect county boundaries, something sought in most submissions to the commission.
The attachment of Irish people to county boundaries is a striking feature, despite the fact that the boundaries reflect English administrators’ decisions, which ignored the traditional Gaelic units, the tuaths. So, the old King’s County (now Offaly) and Queen’s County (now Laois) were called in honour of King Philip II of Spain and his wife, Queen Mary I.
Cathy Honan and Charlie Flanagan at the election count, 1980s
Modern-day Offaly includes parts of the old territories of the O’Molloys, O’Carrolls and O’Connors. Undoubtedly the GAA has played a central role in establishing county allegiance.
Down the years, there has always been a good-humoured rivalry between Laois and Offaly, not only in sport but in politics. At times the constituency returned three deputies from Laois and two from Offaly, as is currently the case, but at other times the reverse.
In general, people tended to vote for candidates from their own county, but there have been exceptions to this rule. It tended to favour Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who made sure to have candidates in each county, but the elections of Labour’s Pat Gallagher in 1992, the Progressive Democrats’ Tom Parlon in 2002 and Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley in 2011 and again in 2020 (after Laois-Offaly was restored) are significant examples of where votes crossed county boundaries.
Is it possible that Laois-Offaly could one day be restored again? Nothing is impossible in politics but it must be seen as unlikely, given the growth in the population of both counties, and the clear desire to maintain county boundaries, which meant that the current five-seater did not reflect the ratio of constituents to representatives required in the constitution, of one deputy for ever 20-30,000 people.
With 160 deputies at present, Ireland is already well past that ratio, with one for every 32,182. With a total of 14 extra deputies due to be elected next time, other changes include Tipperary returning to the old system of Tipperary North and Tipperary South, each being three-seaters, while Dublin Fingal is also to split into two three-seaters.
All this reflects an eight per cent growth in the Republic’s population since 2016.
During my over 18 years in the Offaly Express, we were very conscious of being a sister paper of the Leinster Express, twin titles which covered the whole constituency. There was a lot of cross-over when it came to political coverage, and editor John Whelan sought, in the interests of impartiality, that when it came to election previews, each of the journalists would interview candidates who were not from our own areas.
So, for example, I went to Mountmellick on one occasion to interview Fianna Fáil’s John Moloney at his mother’s home, while on another I conducted an outdoor interview with Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan in Stradbally. Inevitably, to cover Offaly properly you did have to keep an eye on Laois politics.
Of course, the end of the constituency does not mean the end of common bonds in other areas of public administration between the two counties. The 2014 abolition of Vocational Education Committees saw Offaly and Laois unite in the Laois & Offaly Education and Training Board, while for Garda purposes, the two counties will continue to remain a division, with headquarters in Portlaoise – I recall going to the HQ on one occasion to interview a chief superintendent to get an overview of policing issues in the division.
A proposal to make it part of a larger division with Kildare was, not surprisingly, scrapped.
Declan McSweeney and Brian Cowen TD c. 2007
The two counties are, of course, closely bound up in business and farming circles, while in the world of entertainment, many young people from Mountmellick and Portlaoise came to socialise in Tullamore down the years, and vice versa as those from Offaly went to the O’Moore County at weekends – many an Offaly man met his partner in Laois and vice versa, and undoubtedly political boundaries will make no difference in that regard.
Ger Connolly TD at the 1989 count. He was twenty years in the Dail in that year.