Bunreacht na hÉireann

Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) is the fundamental legal document that sets out how Ireland should be governed and the rights of Irish citizens. … The Irish Constitution recognises and declares that you have certain fundamental personal rights. These are confirmed and protected by the Constitution.

It divides the main powers of the State between a legislature (the Oireachtas), that makes laws; an executive that is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the State and the conduct of its foreign relations (government); and a judiciary that adjudicates on legal disputes and interprets laws. The Constitution also created the role of the President, though the powers attached to this office are very limited.

When De Valera introduced the draft Constitution into the Dáil on 11 May 1937, he was careful to stress the democratic importance of the document. He commented that ‘It does seem to me to be a document which is easily understood by anybody who really takes the trouble to read it carefully’.

While it is a document for the people, many people know very little about it and because of this, many constitutional referendums (apart from notable exceptions on divorce, abortion and marriage equality) simply do not exercise the majority of the population. This is a great shame.

To date, 35 constitutional referendums have been held, of which 29 have resulted in amendments to our Constitution. The 36th Constitutional referendum is to be held this coming Friday, 24th May.

When we consider the Constitution in the context of the late 1930s, it is quite a remarkable document in its commitment to democratic ideals. Despite having been written in the conservative 1930s, the Constitution is kept up-to-date by the judiciary’s willingness to interpret it as a ‘living document’. However, there will inevitably be parts of the Constitution which cannot be modernised in this way and will thus require amendment.

This does not mean, however, that every amendment put to the people is for the benefit of the people. We should at all times remember that the primary purpose of our Constitution is to protect fundamental personal rights and freedoms and as and when amendments are made they can impact on these rights and the protection of these rights. We, the People, should guard the Constitution diligently and should I suggest be convinced by valid argument before approving change. The Constitution should not be treated as a document to be tinkered with for political advantage or gain.

The broad purpose of the power structure set out in the Constitution is to ensure that excessive power does not lie in the hands of one institution or person alone – and that there are checks and balances in place to safeguard against abuse of power. Therefore, any amendment to our Constitution that detracts from the safeguards within it or gives more power to the legislature, for example, should not be considered lightly and require a degree of caution and careful reflection.

Lest we forget, the Constitution is the fundamental law of the State and its amendment demands appropriate consideration. Our elected representatives are often guilty of failing to engage with this document or hiding behind it but perhaps we, the people, also need to become more engaged and learn more about this fascinating document.

Given that we are the ‘masters’, we have a responsibility to engage with the document itself and with the debate around potential changes to it. It is a little blue book which costs €2.54 in a book shop and is free to download online – I suggest everyone should have a copy.

By Karl Hutchinson for MOOT