Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bunreacht na hEireann; from Rome Rule to the muscle of Brussels.

“In the name of the most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, at our final end all actions both of men and states must be referred.”                                      -   Preamble to 1937 Constitution of the Republic of Ireland.

2013 has to be a landmark year for Ireland in the EU. Not only is it our seventh time holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union but we are also celebrating (or commiserating, depending on your opinion) 40 years within the institution. And what a year it has been. The commonplace bingo chant ‘13 lucky for some, unlucky for others’ has never seen a truer day. But when you sit back and take note of the public issues of the day you realise how far we have come as a nation since we have joined, and how far we have yet to go.

When De Valera and his men sat down to draft the 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann (Basic Law of Ireland) they sat down to draft a political statement of Ireland’s national identity. It was put to the people and they ratified it; whether it was because they felt it was a good political document or because of their party affiliation with the Anti-treaty side one can’t be sure, but ratify it they did.

Back in the day (1937) Ireland’s political society was conservative, largely rural and very catholic. Hence the dense religious references in our Constitution. There was even reference to the “special position of the Catholic Church” and two Catholic priests were involved in the draft making process; John Charles McQuaid and Edward Cahill. This document screamed we are a legitimate government, an independent state and our people live by a strict moral and legal code. Appropriate in 1937 but not so much now.

We were insular; we had protectionist trade policies and strong cultural revival movements to ensure that our Gaelic identity remained intact. Then in 1973, we joined the European Economic Community. We took part in international conferences, we debated European policies both at home and in Brussels, we became a team player on the European stage. All the while in the background our society was changing. People were more educated (thanks to EU grants), more travelled and more people from different cultures were coming to Ireland to work, study or just visit.  So since our society has changed, surely our statement of national identity should as well?

The Constitution establishes how the Irish state is governed and lists the fundamental rights of our citizens. Many are common place ie right to privacy, right to just procedures etc., while others are more firmly rooted in Catholic beliefs. Central in the list of rights is the idea of your typical (in 1937) Irish family. It specifically mentions “The rights of a family founded on marriage”, this implies a family founded on a marriage between a man and woman.

In 1983, “The right to life of the unborn” was added to the Constitution. In 1986, the Irish people voted against lifting the ban on divorce, in 1995 thankfully we had progressed enough along with the rest of mankind to vote for lifting the ban. In 2002, the 25th Amendment (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) to Bunreacht na hEireann was rejected but by a frustratingly small margin – 49.58% (618,485) voted Yes while the No vote reached 50.42% (629,041). This bill aimed to legally redefine abortion (which is still a crime) and rid women of the right to an abortion if they felt suicidal.

The abortion dispute still roars on and has been at the forefront of public debate for some time thanks to the X case and Savita Hallappanavar’s tragic story. A story which may have been avoided had we clearly stated laws in our constitution for the protection of the mother and consequently the medical professionals treating her. This would mean less time debating what constitutes a risk to the mother’s life vs a risk to the mother’s health. We need doctors in our hospitals not lawyers. We also need politicians to take a stance and create a solid, clearly defined piece of legislation.

Fortunately all of our basic laws are not shrouded in cobwebs and old world morality, the shimmering light at the end of the tunnel is that on April 14th 2013 the Convention on the Constitution voted in favour of changing the Constitution to allow for civil marriage for same-sex couples by a clear majority ( Yes – 79%; No – 19%; No Opinion – 1%), not only that, but they also voted in favour of changed arrangements in regard to the parentage, guardianship and the upbringing of children.

While Irish society would have undergone these changes at one time or another, our participation in the EU has definitely accelerated the process especially with the current generation. Our parents were tentatively accepting of Europe whereas we have grown accustomed to its big hovering presence and have gone forth all guns blazing, accepting, participating and questioning it. So it seems the EU has opened minds as well as markets. Long may it continue.