Bunreacht na hÉireann became the fundamental legal code of the Irish nation-state in 1937 and has since been amended over thirty times. These amendments reflect the Nation’s, underlying, collective psyche as it evolves over time and under the pressure of modernity. Ranging from the acceptance of the European Union’s (EU) legal supremacy, to the recent liberalisations regarding marriage and abortion, our basic laws have undergone radical change. By extension, our shared values and beliefs about ourselves as Irish people, and how we view the rest of the world, have also radically changed. One element of our constitution that remains untouched over the last eighty-four years is the Preamble, which is as follows:
‘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 herby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.’
Interestingly, the Preamble to Bunreacht na hÉireann does not reflect modern Ireland’s broad transition to agnosticism/atheism. It appears to be unequivocal that we, as a people, are strong believers in a particular form of Christianity. This bears no relation to a society which permits divorce, same-sex marriage or abortion.
In contemporary times, Ireland has become a somewhat semi-independent Nation, heavily reliant on EU regulations and directives to govern various aspect of life. Further, our wedding to the EU means that any agreements we may have with other nations, are filtered through the EU institutions. These facts seems to fly in the face of what is being alluded to within the Preamble.
The Common Good
The framers of the Constitution saw the pursuit of the common good as something which must be tempered with the values of prudence, justice and charity. Prudence suggests some form of legal conservativism or reluctance to interfere in the lives of citizens; justice suggests some form of judicial fairness before the law; charity suggests some form of magnanimity from which the poorest in society are catered for.
Looking around today, amidst the coronavirus restrictions, it is difficult to see any legal conservativism as the State places the common good above the citizenry in everyday life. There appears to be no sense of justice within a two-tier society, where some people are segregated from others based on medical grounds. I cannot see the charitable nature of the State as long as it enforces public health measures which disproportionately affect the young, the poor, the sick and the old.
Human Dignity & Freedom
The text clearly states the importance of ensuring that individuals are afforded human dignity and freedom. Human dignity is a foundational legal value upon which western civilisation is built; it is the intrinsic value of each individual, by virtue of being a human being, that can make decisions affecting their own fate to some degree. The freedom to choose, to interact with risks in life, is an essential element of being a dignified human. When a society fails to recognise the innate dignity of individuals, it tends to fall towards fascism and tyranny, as World War II reminds us. It appears to me that mandating citizens to wear masks in public, to remain distanced from one another; to refrain from engaging in risk; is the reflection of a society in which human dignity is no longer afforded to individuals. Risk regulation has become centralised.
When I consider the reference to objective truth in the Preamble the first thing that springs to mind is the targets Ireland has set for achieving neutrality in relation to carbon emissions. These targets will come at a cost to individuals, families, businesses and the Irish State itself. The switch to renewable energy will be expensive, unstable and, at times, unworkable due to the increasing demand for electricity. When we consider the fact that China is still building new coal-powered energy infrastructure, and that Ireland represents less than a single percent of global emissions, it is illogical to proceed with our plans when they will have no effect in halting global warming. We are living in a society aligned to a subjective truth, an anathema to the objective truth outlined in our Constitution.
Some will point to the Preamble as a meaningless precursor to the actual Constitution; a useless section of text that has not yet been amended as it is unnecessary to do so. However, the Preamble is an important part of the Constitution that has been referred to in various Supreme Court cases and has guided the judiciary in the creation of unenumerated rights implied from the text. In other words, the Preamble frames the judicial mind in those cases where the Constitution simply runs out and the judiciary must create. When you consider this fact the importance of the Preamble becomes obvious in an age of technocratic uncertainty.
It is my belief that it is only a matter of time before the Preamble is amended by referendum as it is the last true bastion of a bygone era. It is of crucial importance then, that the public is aware of it, its contents, and its underlying meaning. When the time comes, it will undoubtedly be raised as a referendum on the last bit of Catholicism in the Irish Constitution, when in fact it will be a trojan horse for a government to remove references to vital values such as; human dignity and freedom; prudence, justice and charity.
What I would suggest to the liberals is that they take the time to think about the values contained in the text for what they are and not for their derivation or proximity to religion; and to the Irish conservative I would suggest a scorched-earth policy of a secular Constitution which mentions Christianity in historical terms akin to the Hungarian Constitution.
Gavin Dooley is a law graduate and advocate for a limited, federated, government in Ireland