What We Can Learn From Ireland’s Lost Constitution

Darragh Roche 


RTÉ’s long overdue documentary on the history of women in Ireland, ‘No Country For Women,’ highlighted a reality that everyone already knew but often refused to acknowledge: that Irish laws, and our constitution, treated women like second class citizens. The sexist provisions of the 1937 Bunreacht are so well-known, they hardly need to be mentioned. But the documentary made passing reference to our country’s first constitution and its treatment of gender. The 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State is Ireland’s great, lost founding document. As we continue to amend the Bunreacht, with more referenda on the way, it may be time to revisit our original basic law.

The 1922 Constitution was leaner, rougher and in a real sense, purer than the current one.

It provided specific protections against unlawful imprisonment, declared a private home was ‘inviolable and shall not be forcibly entered except in accordance with law’ and provided for ‘freedom of conscience’ in religious matters – even implying a freedom from religion for children attending religious schools. Article 3 granted citizenship regardless of sex, while Article 9 promised ‘[t]he right of free expression of opinion as well as the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, and to form associations or unions is guaranteed for purposes not opposed to public morality. Laws regulating the manner in which the right of forming associations and the right of free assembly may be exercised shall contain no political, religious or class distinction.”

Article 28 made the day of a general election a public holiday, while Article 24 provided for the direct election of senators by the whole voting aged population. In Article 48, the people were given the power to initiate a referendum. This was a progressive document in the 1920s, resembling in character the American constitution, written about 150 years earlier. But we know the story – the 1922 Constitution was strangled at birth.

Long before the second constitution was written, the Irish government was already ripping up the first. The Free State Constitution had a fatal flaw: Article 50 allowed the Oireachtas to amend the Constitution without a referendum for eight years. And amend it they did. Between 1922 and 1937, the Constitution was amended 27 times, including a change in 1929 to extend the government’s power to make amendments. This farcical situation saw many of the document’s most positive aspects removed: direct democracy, national election of senators, a public holiday on general election day and eventually, the Seanad was abolished outright.

As soon as Ireland had its own constitution, the politicians couldn’t wait to destroy it.

The 1937 Bunreacht replicated some of the old articles, including the parts about sex discrimination and freedom of conscience, but added so many new clauses that they effectively hamstrung the old ones. The special place of the Catholic Church was recognised and the notorious ‘women in the home’ provision was added – hardly an idea in keeping with equal citizenship. The protection for free speech was watered down and the direct election of senators was left out.

The 1922 Constitutional Committee

The tragedy of the 1922 Constitution is that it contained so much to admire. It was more democratic, less religiously inspired, and more in keeping with the aspirations so eloquently and violently expressed by the 1916 generation. The forces of reaction first gutted and then replaced a constitution that gave power to the people in a very real sense. We can no longer elect directly elect senators; we cannot initiate a referendum or force the Dáil to debate a piece of legislation. And the idea of election day as a public holiday is only now resurfacing.

As we re-examine the Bunreacht in the light of the Eighth Amendment campaign and the coming vote on blasphemy, we should cast an eye back to our first constitution. Reform doesn’t just have to mean removing offending articles; it can become a positive movement for improving how our democracy works. At least one organisation, Second Republic, has campaigned on the issue of constitutional reform and the public’s right to seek referenda. They are at least partially inspired by the Free State’s founding document. As we look to the future of our republic, we may be inspired by the past. We have an opportunity to create the country so longed dreamt of. If we can remember the dream.

Darragh Roche is an Irish freelance journalist writing about politics, society and culture. He writes a regular column at the London Economic. He studied History and English at the University of Limerick and American studies in Budapest, Hungary. You can follow him on twitter here


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