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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Constitution of Ireland Comes Into Force

constitution-of-ireland-1937The Constitution of Ireland, the second constitution of the Irish state since independence, comes into force on December 29, 1937 following a statewide plebiscite held on July 1, 1937, replacing the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. It asserts the national sovereignty of the Irish people. The constitution falls broadly within the tradition of liberal democracy, being based on a system of representative democracy. It guarantees certain fundamental rights, along with a popularly elected non-executive president, a bicameral parliament based on the Westminster system, a separation of powers and judicial review. The Constitution may be amended solely by a national referendum.

The Constitution of Ireland replaces the Constitution of the Irish Free State which had been in effect since the independence, as a dominion, of the Irish state from the United Kingdom on December 6, 1922. There are two main motivations for replacing the constitution in 1937. Firstly, the Statute of Westminster 1931 grants parliamentary autonomy to the six British Dominions (now known as Commonwealth realms) within a British Commonwealth of Nations. This has the effect of making the dominions sovereign nations in their own right. The Irish Free State constitution of 1922 is, in the eyes of many, associated with the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty. The anti-treaty faction, who oppose the treaty initially by force of arms, is so opposed to the institutions of the new Irish Free State that it initially takes an abstentionist line toward them, boycotting them altogether. However, the largest element of this faction becomes convinced that abstentionism cannot be maintained forever. This element, led by Éamon de Valera, forms the Fianna Fáil party in 1926, which enters into government following the 1932 Irish general election.

After 1932, under the provisions of the Statute of Westminster, some of the articles of the original Constitution which were required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty are dismantled by acts of the Oireachtas of the Irish Free State. Such amendments remove references to the Oath of Allegiance, appeals to the United Kingdom’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British Crown and the Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The sudden abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936 is quickly used to redefine the Royal connection. Nevertheless, the Fianna Fáil government still desires to replace the constitutional document they see as having been imposed by the British government in 1922.

The second motive for replacing the original constitution is primarily symbolic. De Valera wants to put an Irish stamp on the institutions of government, and chooses to do this in particular through the use of Irish Gaelic nomenclature.

The text of the draft constitution, with minor amendments, is approved on June 14, 1937 by Dáil Éireann, then the sole house of parliament as the Seanad had been abolished the previous year.

The draft constitution is then put to a plebiscite on July 1, 1937, the same day as the 1937 Irish general election, when it is passed by a plurality of 56% of the voters, comprising 38.6% of the whole electorate. The constitution formally comes into force on December 29, 1937.

Among the groups who oppose the constitution are supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, Unionists, and some independents and feminists. The Seal of the President of Ireland is also adopted in the same year. Ireland does not become a republic until 1948.

(Pictured: Headline from The New York Times, May 1, 1937)


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Enactment of the Constitution of Ireland

constitution-of-irelandThe current Constitution of Ireland is enacted by a national plebiscite of voters on July 1, 1937 in what is then the Irish Free State. The Constitution comes into effect on December 29, 1937. The Constitution is closely associated with Éamon de Valera, the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State at the time, who is personally eager to replace the Constitution of the Irish Free State.

There are two main motivations for replacing the constitution in 1937. Firstly, the Irish Free State constitution of 1922 is, in the eyes of many, associated with the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty. The second motive for replacing the original constitution is primarily symbolic. De Valera wants to put an Irish stamp on the institutions of government, and chooses to do this in particular through the use of Irish nomenclature.

De Valera, as President of the Executive Council, personally supervises the writing of the Constitution. It is drafted initially by John Hearne, legal adviser to the Department of External Affairs. De Valera serves as his own External Affairs Minister, hence the use of the Department’s Legal Advisor, with whom he has previously worked closely, as opposed to the Attorney General or someone from the Department of the President of the Executive Council. He also receives significant input from John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, on religious, educational, family, and social welfare issues. The text is translated into Irish over a number of drafts by a group headed by Micheál Ó Gríobhtha who works in the Department of Education.

The framers of the 1937 Constitution decide that it will be enacted not by an elected body but by the people themselves by means of a plebiscite. The preamble to the 1937 Constitution is thus written in the name not of the legislature but of “We, the people of Éire.” On June 2, 1937, the Oireachtas passes the Plebiscite (Draft Constitution) Act 1937, which mandates the holding of a plebiscite on the draft constitution on the same date as the next general election. The Dáil is dissolved on June 14, 1937, as soon as it has approved the draft constitution. The ensuing general election is held on July 1, 1937, and the plebiscite is held in parallel. The question put to voters is simply “Do you approve of the Draft Constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?” It is passed by a plurality – 56% of voters are in favour, comprising 38.6% of the entire electorate.

Neither the Dáil resolution approving the draft Constitution nor the Plebiscite (Draft Constitution) Act 1937 provide for the plebiscite establish how the Constitution would come into force. It is the Constitution itself which states that this will occur 180 days after its approval, and that the 1922 Constitution will simultaneously be repealed. This happens on December 29, 1937, one hundred eighty days after the July 1 plebiscite.

Consequential acts are passed between July and December to provide for the establishment of, and holding elections for, the new Seanad and the Presidency, as well as for other adaptations. The Presidential Establishment Act, 1938 is passed after the Constitution has come into effect but before the first President, Douglas Hyde, takes office.