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BunreachtHead

The Constitution of Ireland (Irish: Bunreacht na hÉireann) is the fundamental law of Ireland. The constitution falls broadly within the tradition of liberal democracy. It establishes an independent state based on a system of representative democracy. It guarantees certain fundamental rights, along with a popularly elected non-executive president, a bicameral parliament based on the Westminster system, a separation of powers and judicial review.

It is the second constitution of the state since independence, replacing the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. It came into force on 29 December 1937 following national plebiscite held on 1 July 1937. The Constitution may be amended solely by a national referendum.

BackgroundEdit

The Constitution of Ireland replaced the Constitution of the Irish Free State which had been in effect since the independence of the Irish state from the United Kingdom on 6 December 1922. There were two main motivations for replacing the constitution in 1937. Firstly, the Statute of Westminster 1931 granted parliamentary autonomy to the six British Dominions (now known as Commonwealth realms) within a Commonwealth of Nations. The Irish Free State constitution of 1922 was, in the eyes of many, associated with the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty. The largest political group in the anti-treaty faction, who opposed the treaty initially by force of arms, had boycotted the institutions of the new Irish Free State until 1926. In 1932 they were elected into power as the Fianna Fáil party.

After 1932, under the provisions of the Statute, some of the articles of the original Constitution which were required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty were dismantled by acts of the Oireachtas of the Irish Free State. Such amendments removed references to the Oath of Allegiance, appeals to the United Kingdom's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British Crown and the Governor General. The sudden abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936 was quickly used to redefine the royal connection. Nevertheless, the Fianna Fáil government, led by Éamon de Valera, still desired to replace the constitutional document they saw as having been imposed by the UK government in 1922.

The second motive for replacing the original constitution was primarily symbolic. De Valera wanted to put an Irish stamp on the institutions of government, and chose to do this in particular through the use of Irish Gaelic nomenclature.

Drafting processEdit

De Valera personally supervised the writing of the Constitution. It was drafted initially by John Hearne, legal adviser to the Department of External Affairs (now called the Department of Foreign Affairs). It was translated into Irish over a number of drafts by a group headed by Micheál Ó Gríobhtha (assisted by Risteárd Ó Foghludha), who worked in the Irish Department of Education. De Valera served as his own External Affairs Minister, hence the use of the Department's Legal Advisor, with whom he had previously worked closely, as opposed to the Attorney General or someone from the Department of the President of the Executive Council. He also received significant input from John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, on religious, educational, family and social welfare issues.

There are a number of instances where the texts in English and Irish clash, a potential dilemma which the Constitution resolves by favouring the Irish text even though English is more commonly used in the official sphere.

A draft of the constitution was presented personally to the Vatican for review and comment on two occasions by the Department Head at External Relations, Joseph P. Walsh. Prior to its tabling in Dáil Éireann and presentation to the Irish electorate in a plebiscite, Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, said about the final amended draft "We do not approve, neither do we disapprove; We shall maintain silence." The quid pro quo for this indulgence of the Catholic Church's interests in Ireland was the degree of respectability which it conferred on De Valera's formerly denounced republican faction and its reputation as the 'semi-constitutional' political wing of the 'irregular' anti-treaty forces.

EnactmentEdit

The text of the draft constitution, with minor amendments, was approved on 14 June by Dáil Éireann (then the sole house of parliament, the Senate having been abolished the previous year).

The draft constitution was then put to a plebiscite on 1 July 1937 (the same day as the 1937 general election), when it was passed by a plurality. 56% of voters were in favour, comprising 38.6% of the whole electorate. The constitution formally came into force on 29 December 1937.

Among the groups who opposed the constitution were supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, Unionists, and some independents and feminists. The question put to voters was simply "Do you approve of the Draft Constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?".

Plebiscite on the Constitution of Ireland
Choice Votes Percentage
Referendum passed Yes 685,105 56.52%
No 526,945 43.48%
Valid votes 1,212,050 90.03%
Invalid or blank votes 134,157 9.97%
Total votes 1,346,207 100.00%
Voter turnout 75.84%
Electorate 1,775,055

Main provisionsEdit

The official text of the Constitution consists of a Preamble and fifty Articles arranged under sixteen headings. Its overall length is approximately 16,000 words. The headings are:

  1. The Nation (Arts. 1–3)
  2. The State (Arts. 4–11)
  3. The President (Arts. 12–14)
  4. The National Parliament (Arts. 15–27)
  5. The Government (Art. 28)
  6. Local Government (Art. 28A)
  7. International Relations (Art. 29)
  8. The Attorney General (Art. 30)
  9. The Council of State (Arts. 31–32)
  10. The Comptroller and Auditor General (Art. 33)
  11. The Courts (Arts. 34–37)
  12. Trial of Offences (Arts. 38–39)
  13. Fundamental Rights (Arts. 40–44)
  14. Directive Principles of Social Policy (Art. 45)
  15. Amendment of the Constitution (Art. 46)
  16. The Referendum (Art. 47)
  17. Repeal of Constitution of Saorstát Éireann and Continuance of Laws (Arts. 48–50)

The Constitution also includes a number of "Transitory Provisions" (Arts. 51–63) which have, in accordance with their terms, been omitted from all official texts since 1941. These provisions are still in force but are now mostly spent.

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