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


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Passage of the Constitution (Removal of Oath) Act 1933

The Constitution (Removal of Oath) Act 1933 (act no. 6 of 1933, previously bill no. 2 of 1932), an Act of the Oireachtas of the Irish Free State amending the Constitution of the Irish Free State and the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act 1922, is passed on May 3, 1933. The Act removes the Oath of Allegiance required of members of the Oireachtas and of non-Oireachtas extern ministers.

The oath, pledging allegiance to the Constitution and fidelity to George V as King of Ireland, is required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in 1921, and has been the symbolic focus of Irish republican opposition to the Treaty in the 1922–23 Irish Civil War. When Fianna Fáil is founded in 1926 by veterans of the losing anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, abolishing the oath is a core aim. It is a main item in the manifesto for its successful 1932 Irish general election campaign, after which it forms a minority government whose first action is to introduce the Constitution (Removal of Oath) Bill 1932. Seanad Éireann has more ex-unionists and others conciliatory towards the United Kingdom, and vote to reject the bill unless the Treaty can be amended by agreement. After the 1933 Irish general election, the Fianna Fáil majority government is able to override the Seanad and enact the law.

As well as amending the Constitution, the 1933 act also amends the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act 1922, which had both created the Constitution in Irish law and also prohibited any Constitutional amendment incompatible with the Treaty. Since the Free State cannot unilaterally amend the Treaty, Fianna Fáil amends the 1922 act to remove the Treaty’s precedence over the Constitution. Later constitutional amendments are also incompatible with the terms of the Treaty, in particular by weakening and ultimately abolishing the office of Governor-General of the Irish Free State. There is legal controversy over whether the Oireachtas has the power to amend the 1922 act, because it had been passed by the Third Dáil sitting as a constituent assembly before the Oireachtas had come into being. In 1935 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in London rules that, in British law, the Oireachtas does have the power, under the Statute of Westminster 1931. Irish jurisprudence takes issue with many of the assumptions underlying the 1935 decision.

The question is rendered moot with the adoption of the Constitution of Ireland in 1937 which repeals the Free State Constitution. The 1933 act is itself repealed as spent by the Statute Law Revision Act 2016.

(Pictured: Great Seal of the Irish Free State)


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Adoption of the Constitution of the Irish Free State

The Constitution of the Irish Free State (Irish: Bunreacht Shaorstát Eireann) is adopted by Act of Dáil Éireann sitting as a constituent assembly on October 25, 1922. In accordance with Article 83 of the Constitution, the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 of the British Parliament, which comes into effect upon receiving the royal assent on December 5, 1922, provides that the Constitution will come into effect upon the issue of a Royal Proclamation, which is done on December 6, 1922. In 1937 the Constitution of the Irish Free State is replaced by the modern Constitution of Ireland following a referendum.

Shortly after the British evacuate their troops from Dublin Castle in January 1922, Michael Collins sets about establishing a committee to draft a new constitution for the nascent Irish Free State which would come into being in December 1922. Collins chairs the first meeting of that committee and at that point is its chairman, but is assassinated before the constitution is finalised. Darrell Figgis, the vice-chairman becomes acting Chair. The committee produces three draft texts, designated A, B and C. Draft A is signed by Figgis, James McNeill and John O’Byrne. Draft B is signed by James G. Douglas, C.J. France and Hugh Kennedy and it differs substantially from draft A only in proposals regarding the Executive. Draft C is the most novel of the three. It is signed by Alfred O’Rahilly and James Murnaghan, and provides for the possibility of representation for the people of the northern counties in the Dáil in the event of that area opting out of the proposed free state.

On March 31, 1922, an act of the United Kingdom Parliament called the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 is passed. It gives the force of law to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which had been negotiated between the British government and Irish leaders in 1921. It also provides by for the election of a body to be called the “House of the Parliament,” sometimes called the “Provisional Parliament,” to which the Provisional Government establishes under that act will be responsible. The act gives no power to the Provisional Parliament to enact a constitution for the Irish Free State. In due course, “the House of the Parliament,” provided for by that act, is elected and meets on September 9, 1922, and calling itself Dáil Éireann, proceeds to sit as a constituent assembly for the settlement of what becomes the Constitution of the Irish Free State.

The Constitution establishes a parliamentary system of government under a form of constitutional monarchy, and contains guarantees of certain fundamental rights. It is intended that the constitution would be a rigid document that, after an initial period, could be amended only by referendum. However, amendments are made to the Constitution’s amendment procedure, so that all amendments can be and are in fact made by a simple Act of the Oireachtas (parliament).

Following a change of government in 1932 and the adoption of the Statute of Westminster 1931, a series of amendments progressively removes many of the provisions that had been required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

(Pictured: The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, 1922)


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Northern Ireland Opts Out of the Irish Free State

The six counties of what would become Northern Ireland opt out of the Irish Free State on December 7, 1922 and become a separate political entity with allegiance to England.

The Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 (Session 2) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, passed in 1922 to enact in UK law the Constitution of the Irish Free State, and to ratify the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty formally.

As originally enacted, the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 consists of a preamble, five sections (three of which are very brief), and a schedule. The schedule is the text of the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act 1922, which had been passed in Ireland by the Third Dáil sitting as a constituent assembly and provisional parliament for the nascent Free State. This Irish Act itself has two schedules, the first being the actual text of the Constitution, and the second the text of the 1921 Treaty, formally the Articles of Agreement for a treaty between Great Britain and Ireland.

The Irish Act had been approved by the Irish constituent assembly on 25 October 25, 1922. The bill for the UK Act is introduced by the Prime Minister Bonar Law into the Parliament of the United Kingdom in November 1922. The bill’s third reading in the House of Commons is on November 30. The Act receives Royal assent on December 5, 1922.

On December 7, 1922, the day after the establishment of the Irish Free State, the Parliament of Northern Ireland addresses King George V requesting its secession from the Irish Free State. The address is unanimous, with the abstentionist Nationalist Party and Sinn Féin members absent. The King replies shortly thereafter to say that he has caused his Ministers and the Government of the Irish Free State to be informed that Northern Ireland is to do so.

After the Statute of Westminster 1931, the UK government recognises the right of the Irish government to amend or repeal the UK act, but in fact the Irish government does not do so until it is formally repealed as spent by the Statute Law Revision Act 2007. The Irish government amends the Irish act in 1933 and the 1937 Constitution of Ireland repeals the entire Free State constitution. The UK Judicial Committee of the Privy Council rules in 1935 that the 1933 Act had implicitly amended the UK Act with respect to the jurisdiction of the Free State. The Supreme Court of Ireland has taken the view that the Free State constitution was enacted by the Irish Act, not by the subsequent UK Act. This reflects the view of popular sovereignty rather than parliamentary sovereignty, with the constitution’s legitimacy ultimately springing from the 1922 Irish general election.


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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)