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

  • KieranJ

    “The 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann was designed for a very different society from the one in which we now live.”

    So was the United States Constitution but it can be changed through amendments.

    What’s your point?

  • It is refreshing to find Imbolc observed here on Slugger. I look to the future with renewed hope for several reasons

    Ireland as a whole has grown, many are openly asking what do we owe the Catholic Church, why having thrown off the British do we bow to Rome.

    The above question is encouraging many Unionists to ask why London, why not Dublin?.

    In the south we are coming through a hard recession, not with blind acceptance, but with questions. The first among many being Who dared to treat the population with such blatant contempt.

    Child abuse the long hidden shame of the Church, and not only the Catholic Church, is out in the open, shamed and vilified, any who helped to hide this scourge of our society are being openly questioned and scorned.

    For many such reasons I believe Ireland will emerge from this harshest of winters with renewed energy and self belief.

  • Alias

    A change I would like to see – but that Naoise Nunn would not – is that our great constitution is amended to require a government that proposes a significant amendment to the constitution to resign if the people reject the proposed amendment. That would prevent europhiles undermining democracy by making the people vote again on an amendment until they vote the right way, i.e. that way that the EU directs them to vote.

  • Alias

    I disagree with much that you say, but I have to admit total agreement with this:

    If an amendment suggested and encouraged by members of government is vetoed by the people in sufficient majority, then those members of the government who gave it their full support should be made to consider their future. If their belief is so far from the belief of the people they serve – should they be serving???

  • Alias

    Pippy, as many pointed out there won’t be any more referendums on the surrender of Irish sovereignty to the EU after the Lisbon treaty since that treaty is self-amending (so-called “passerelle” clause) and referendums are only required under the Irish constitution if additional transfers of sovereignty are outside of the essential scope and objectives of an existing treaty.

    So is it bolting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted? Yes and no. There are significant areas of Irish sovereignty that are outside of the essential scope and objectives of the otherwise all-encompassing treaty.

    For example, the Irish people withheld their permission in the 28th Amendment for the State to participate in a EU common defence policy (Article 42 of the treaty). Now that’s a bit of a blow to the rapid EU federalists that infest the country since all aspects of the State’s external affairs must be transferred to the EU in due course if it is to complete its journey to becoming an internal region of another state.

    Ireland, alone among member states, is a democratic republic where sovereignty resides with the people and not with the state. Since the Irish people value their policy of neutrality, the europhiles will need some suitable pretext to remove these and other aspects of Irish sovereignty in due course.

    Under the Lisbon treaty, the state can transfer foreign and defence policy to the EU under the Unanimity Rule but it is prevented from doing that by the text of the amendment. That is what these quislings are after.

  • Alias

    The “suitable pretext” being the ‘modernisation’ of the constitution, i.e. removing the offending democratic republic aspect of it and bringing it into line with the rest of the EU where power belongs to the state and not the people – the European statist model where the people exist to serve the state rather than the state existing to serve the people. Because they can’t declare that agenda, the Europhiles need to focus public attention on other aspects of the constitution and suggest a different purpose for their proposed reform.

  • Henry94

    Getting agreement on a new constitution would be very difficult. You would only need one good reason to vote No.

    I think you’d have to split to vote. Institutional reform would be broadly welcomed and once the people were listened to that would be passed. The Seanad would be abolished, the Dail reduced in size and the powers of a reduced number of local authorities increased.

    The most important reform would be the establishment of a true Dail Eireann with every part of the island entitled to send representatives.

    I think people are happy with the Presidency in general.

    It’s on the values issues that you would have the most controversy. Do people have the right to choose in education or should we have a state monopoly?

    What do we mean by marriage?

    Is the constitution even the place for such issues?

    I’m a bit dubious about the idea that a government should resign if they lose a referendum. It would make every issue a confidence vote. For example the Children’s Rights referendum should not be an opportunity to get rid of Brian Cowen.

  • Alias

    The other change I would make is to remove the amendment that granted the United Kingdom sovereignty over vital economic, cultural and political institutions of the Irish state, so I idea of the public representatives who are elected by the citizens of a foreign state seats in the Irish parliament is simply nuts. Perhaps if you agreed to pay taxes in this jurisdiction…

  • Alias

    Typo: “….so the idea of giving the public representatives…”

  • Greenflag

    ‘world-class financial and banking experts’

    And who exactly would they be? The same gobshites who delivered the current world recession ?

    Alan Greenspan is unavailable having confessed publicly that he did’nt think bankers were subject to the same laws of human nature as the felonious prison population ;(

    While there’s a lot to be said for a new Constitution for a Second Republic given the dramatically changed social, cultural and religious environment between the Ireland of 2010 and that of 1937 we could make a fresh start straight away by making sure that the Constitution cannot be amended by a voting minority of the electorate which is what happened at Lisbon 1 and Lisbon 2 . At the very least a minimum turnout of 75% should be required before a referendum count begins . They can open the poll booths on Saturdays and Sundays for the convenience of voters .

  • The most important reform would be the establishment of a true Dail Eireann with every part of the island entitled to send representatives.

    Sounds like the West Lothian Question Redux to me.

  • Alias

    Sounds like wanting rights without responsibilities. If it means so much, let’s do a deal where any citizen of the United Kingdom who agrees to pay taxes to this jurisdiction is entitled to a vote in it. Somehow these freeloaders will lose all interest…

  • Henry 94

    In fact every referendum is a vote of confidence. If the government of the day recommends A and the people vote B, then they have in effect been ‘voted down’. It is not good enough to get back in the, extremely well paid, bunker and turn up six months or a year later and present the same wolf in different sheeps clothes.


    I dont think the UK considers they have any sovereignty over any part of Ireland. Or perhaps they wish they had no sovereignty!

  • DerTer

    Surely as a result of recent changes UK citizens resident in the RoI (and not just those from NI) are already entitled to vote there, just as Irish citizens in Britain have remained entitled to the vote ever since 1921.

  • Take the U.S. constitution and replace the right to guns with the right to health care.

    The separation of the executive from the legislature is necessary on both sides of the border here.