‘There needs to be real political reform’ was the mantra of all parties in the last General Election. Judging by the text of the Coalition’s Programme for Government constitutional reform can be taken to mean tinkering around with the existing Constitution. But this reform needs to go far deeper. Real change requires the scrapping of the 1937 Constitution – a flawed, misogynistic, sectarian, anti-egalitarian document which has institutionalised inequality and injustice under a range of headings, making it anti-republican in a country that claims to be a republic.
The tone of the current constitution is set in its preamble which states:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Éire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.
It is legitimate to argue that this preamble is inappropriate to today’s Ireland in which reside many citizens who worship a different version of ‘God’ to the Christian one, or who are non-believers, including Atheists. It is not for the State but for the citizen to pay homage to a ‘God’ or not to do so. There is a valid argument that the State should guarantee religious liberty while maintaining a strictly secular stance of not seeking to interfere in the personal beliefs or practices of the citizen with regard to religious or spiritual belief or lack of same.
A more appropriate preamble in the constitution of a republic would be one which lays out the founding principles and ethos of that republic, and names the republic, and that from this preamble all subsequent articles of the constitution and all legislation by parliament both past and present should flow in accordance with the principles and ethos of the republic. By way of comparison with the existing preamble here is one option:
The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and all of its natural resources and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible, and will strive to achieve this in full by peaceful means. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights, respect and opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts.
This is of course a reconstructed synthesis of the key points of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic which takes into account the political reality of partition and divided allegiances on the island now, and the need to redress these physical, cultural and psychological divisions through dialogue in parallel with the practical application of progressive enlightenment republicanism, and through this the construction of a State and society worthy of realising the ambition of the unification of the island and its people to the advantage of all.
It is worth using that proposed preamble as a way of gauging how any of the key issues that affect citizens would have to be determined either in the Constitution or through legislation. For instance, there are two words in that preamble that are significant in their own right – one is ‘happiness’, and the other is ‘all’ which is repeated a number of times. The use of ‘all’ with respect to citizens removes any qualification of or diminution of citizenship and fundamental rights by reason of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, social class, disability and so on. The use of ‘happiness’ has significance if it is applied to the State’s duty in providing for the fundamentals of life – sustenance, health, education, housing, care of children and the elderly, human respect and dignity, and so on. It is a word that is subversive to authoritarianism and corruption – the ‘happiness of the whole nation and of all of its parts’. What a great concept! It is time to make those words work for the citizens and by extension for the nation.
If we are to reform the Constitution then we must start at the beginning and define precisely what sort of Republic we want to have. That is what the signatories to the Proclamation intended, and left the template as their legacy to us.
It remains to us to live up to that legacy. The time is right to do it now. We, the citizens, must take control of reform away from the sectional interests of political parties, and must settle for nothing less than our full legacy.