Second Republic: The 1937 Bunreacht was designed for a very different society…

Yesterday was the winter festival of Imbolc, or as Gaeilge ‘i mbolg’ or ‘in the belly’, generally of sheep. It’s a time when the potential of things are a great deal more obvious than the shape of their ultimate realisation. That’s not a reckoning of inscrutable goings on in Hillsborough and latterly Stormont by the way. My attention has been fixed more closely to home on the shortcomings of our democratic institutions in Dublin. At this most cheerless point in the political cycle there is an opportunity to acknowledge how our democratic institutions have failed us, and scope out a functional programme of action. My my op ed for the Irish Times yesterday follows beneath the fold:RECENTLY I visited the almost forgotten Hill of Uisneach near Mullingar. More important in pre-Christian times than Tara itself, it is the ancient site of the Bealtaine festival which celebrated the survival of the harsh winter and the fertile promise of the new season.

One of many enigmatic features on the hill, the Cat Stone – or Áill na Mireann – marks the point at which the four ancient provinces met and was regarded as the omphalos or navel of Ireland. In legend the stone is also the resting place of Éirú, the goddess after whom Ireland is named. None of this significance was lost on Daniel O’Connell, Pádraig Pearse or Éamon de Valera, all of whom delivered significant “navel-gazing” speeches from atop the massive boulder.

While it seems certain Ireland will survive this harsh winter of economic recession, the long-lasting social and political implications for us all will be profound. Far from sending us into a spiral of insularity and self-loathing, however, we should seize upon this great crisis as a great opportunity – a new fertile season which offers promise to all.

In the absence of any inspiration from our political class, it is we who must take the initiative to ensure that our collective sacrifice is rewarded with a renewed and reinvigorated society. One way in which we can do this is by giving ourselves a new constitution.

Referring to the American constitution which he helped frame, Thomas Jefferson insisted that: “No society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law – the earth belongs always to the living generation.” Drawing on that sentiment, I believe now is the moment at which this living generation needs to give itself a new framework that reflects modern Irish life and values while drawing on the wisdom and experience of our ancestors.

The 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann was designed for a very different society from the one in which we now live. While many of the fundamental principles are timeless and form the basis of most modern liberal democracies, there are many aspects which, in the light of our experience, are now in need of a radical overhaul. Proposed and long-delayed referendums on many issues could be incorporated into one question on a new constitution at a single time of asking.

The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and its predecessor, the Constitutional Review Group, have since 1996 produced no less than 11 progress reports, a report on the electoral system and a study of the Irish text of Bunreacht na hÉireann. While all this thought and effort is noble and worthy, it will remain pointless unless it translates into real reform. Bills to propose constitutional referendums can only be moved in the Dáil, therefore only a strong momentum in public opinion will be successful in moving politicians and political parties to act.

The elements addressed by the committees’ reports have covered Seanad Éireann, the President, the courts and the judiciary, abortion, the referendum, parliament, government, private property and the family. The recommendations of these reports – together with other proposals – could well form the basis for a series of lively public meetings and debates about how we want to imagine ourselves, our society and our State for the coming generation.

These meetings and debates could become a nationwide phenomenon which could culminate in a constitutional convention. This convention could prepare the text of a revised Bunreacht na hÉireann which could be then put to the people in a referendum. Even if the proposition was defeated, the positive and creative exercise of debating our values and how we want practically to govern ourselves would provide a valuable focus at a time of uncertainty and insecurity.

Some of the questions we might ask ourselves could include the following: Should we have a full separation of church and State that acknowledges a secular approach to governance while guaranteeing rights to all faiths and none? Do we need a fundamental reform of the electoral system that delivers a streamlined and efficient legislative assembly whose members are not slaves to parochial issues that are better dealt with by local government?

Does local government need to be rationalised and strengthened with local tax-raising powers and elected members and officials held responsible and accountable for local budgets and policy? Does the Civil Service need to be radically overhauled to deliver real progress and results that respond to the needs of a modern state?

Does the Seanad need to be reformed to provide an expert consultative role in a range of modern disciplines as an assembly of, for example, world-class engineers, financial and banking experts, environmental specialists, physicists, geneticists and creative people drawn not just from this country but from its vast diaspora?

Our social, economic and political life looks pretty bleak at the moment and it is difficult to see our way beyond the grim reality of unemployment, cuts in public services and rising taxes. Many of the institutions represented in our communities by the priest, the bank manager, the doctor, the solicitor, the estate agent and the politician have failed us in one way or another. It is now up to ordinary citizens. If we choose to do so, we can take control of our own destiny and form the basis of a “Second Republic”.

If we do this, not only will we survive the harsh winter, we can emerge renewed, energetic and purposeful into a new season as our ancestors did for thousands of years at Uisneach.

If this resonates with you then come along to the next Leviathan Political Cabaret: A Second Republic – A New Constitution. It’s on this Thursday at 8pm in the Button Factory, in Temple Bar.

Mark Little is comparing… Brendan Halligan, chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs; lecturer and columnist with The Irish Times, Elaine Byrne; Senator Rónán Mullen; and one of Ireland’s foremost constitutional experts, Gerard Hogan SC. There will also be entertainment of a political and scandalous hue from Paddy Cullivan and The Emergency: Live.

Book at