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Monday 22 January 2018

Dev's vision for Ireland

The Irish Constitution has been slowly dismantled since its creation in 1937

Panti Bliss celebrating the results of the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Panti Bliss celebrating the results of the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Eamon de Valera could not have been prouder of Bunreacht na hÉireann. For the man who famously claimed that he could always tell what the Irish people wanted by "looking into my heart", this was the closest he ever got to shaping Ireland in his own image. Speaking at a Fianna Fáil ard fheis shortly after the Constitution had been passed in 1937, he declared, "I would be very glad indeed at the hour of my death to stand over it."

In a strange way, however, Dev's blueprint for Ireland has been the victim of its own success. The document mirrored his personal social and religious beliefs so accurately that a backlash against it was always inevitable. Today it remains a regular battleground for bitter legal and cultural wars that reflect the changing nature of Irish society.

"Fianna Fáil people always saw it as 'our' Constitution," the former Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews wrote in his 2007 memoir Kingstown Republican. The ban on divorce, recognition of the Catholic Church's "special position" and reference to women's "duties in the home" cemented Ireland's international reputation as a deeply conservative place. Most provocatively of all, Articles 2 and 3 claimed sovereignty over the whole island - even though some of Dev's own TDs warned him that this would actually make Irish unity harder to achieve.

De Valera drew up the Constitution behind closed doors with the aid of senior civil servants and Catholic clerics such as the future Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid. He also took the precaution of sending a draft version to Pope Pius XI. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State who later became Pope himself, replied, "We do not approve, neither do we disapprove. We shall maintain silence."

Not everybody was so reticent. Just like de Valera himself, his Constitution still has the power to sharply divide opinion. Some people revere it as the cornerstone of our democracy, others believe that it stands in the way of a fully secular and liberal society. During a Cabinet row about Irish neutrality last November, Taoiseach Enda Kenny reportedly showed his frustration with Transport Minister Shane Ross by waving a copy of the blue-covered Bunreacht at him.

On no fewer than 40 occasions since 1937, Irish voters have been invited to amend the Constitution through a referendum. They have said yes 29 times with varying degrees of enthusiasm, approving adoption rights by a whopping 98pc margin in 1979 and agreeing to the introduction of divorce by a wafer-thin 0.6pc in 1995. The rest of the time, as Enda Kenny acknowledged ruefully after his failed attempt to abolish Seanad Eireann in 2013, they chose to give their government "a wallop".

Ironically, the first person to receive such a wallop was Éamon de Valera himself. On the same day as the 1959 presidential election, he tried to replace his Constitution's PR electoral system with a British-style 'first past the post' regime. The electorate showed its sophistication by sending Dev to Aras an Uachtarain while simultaneously rejecting an idea that could have kept Fianna Fáil in power forever.

However, it was not until the 1980s that Bunreacht na hEireann became a real political football. "I would like to lead a constitutional crusade," the Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald announced in 1981, by which he meant revising our Constitution to make the idea of a united Ireland more attractive to Ulster unionists. As he pointed out, articles such as the divorce ban made it easy for northern Protestants to retreat behind their 19th century slogan - 'Home Rule is Rome rule'.

Although FitzGerald never made much personal progress with his crusade, others were happy to pick up the baton. In 1988 Des O'Malley's Progressive Democrats even suggested that the Constitution should be torn up and completely rewritten. Unfortunately for the PDs, somebody spotted that their new draft did not contain a single mention of God - which led to an awful lot of handwringing and a humiliating u-turn within days.

Since then, three seismic referendums have radically altered the complexion of de Valera's Constitution. The eventual acceptance of divorce in 1995, which reversed the result of another vote held nine years earlier, was the first time that an Irish electorate had refused to obey the Catholic Church's instructions. It came after an exceptionally bad-tempered campaign, best remembered now for posters such as 'Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy' and one activist's outburst at the count centre: "G'way, ye wife-swapping sodomites!"

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was another crucial development, since by revising Articles 2 and 3 it meant that the Constitution finally acknowledged the North's right to exist. Perhaps the change that would have shocked de Valera most of all, however, came in 2015 when Ireland became the first country in the world to endorse same-sex marriage by popular vote. The euphoric celebration at Dublin Castle when the result came through was something that virtually no Irish person in 1937 could have envisaged - least of all Dev himself.

There is still one pressing social issue that no amount of debate seems able to resolve. Ireland has now gone through five abortion referendums (including three on one day in 1992), but the constitutional ban inserted in 1983 remains as deeply divisive as ever. It is widely expected that the current Citizens Assembly will result in another one being held next year - although only a wide-eyed optimist would expect this to settle the matter.

Enda Kenny set up a Constitutional Convention in 2012, acknowledging that the document needs to be regularly monitored so that it keeps up to date with changing lifestyles and attitudes. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition even promised a 'Constitution Day' with several referendums, creating potentially the biggest facelift for Bunreacht na hEireann since 1937. So far, however, only two of the Convention's 18 recommendations have been put before the people - which means that proposals such as votes for emigrants, giving citizens a constitutional right to housing, and removing the offence of blasphemy are still on the long finger.

All good philosophy students know about the thought experiment called 'George Washington's Axe', which asks: can an object that has had all of its original components replaced still be called by the same name? Only time will tell whether or not Éamon de Valera's constitution ultimately suffers the same fate - to be slowly dismantled bit by bit so that its own creator would barely recognise it.

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