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A whiff of constitutional change in the air

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

Sacred cows or old nags? Voters in the Republic will be casting their views into ballot boxes this Friday in the referendum that will shape the political heart of Ireland’s constitution for years to come.

As is often the case when history is discussed in Ireland, the past is hanging heavy in the air. In the case of Articles Two and Three, however, it is two pasts, the more distant 1930s and the more recent 1960s.

The articles that the government and most other major political parties would like to see consigned to the political graveyard were contained in Eamon de Valera’s personally crafted constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, which was passed by the D_il on June 14, 1937.

As mighty European nations were laying violent claim to weaker nations, de Valera’s Ireland was laying claim to the lost North – only minus the tanks.

But while the always charged debate over Articles Two and Three is only this week reaching a possible climax, it was in the mid-1960s that the first shots were fired in the direction of Dev’s orthodoxy.

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They came at a time when Ireland was already going through profound change at a number of levels. True, de Valera still cast a long shadow over the country from his seemingly permanent perch in the presidential residence, Aras an Uachtarain. But by the middle of a decade that made even staid Ireland swing a bit, pragmatic social and economic policies were placing ever greater pressure on the bindings of Dev’s constitutional tome.

The fact that Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a veteran of 1916 and successor to de Valera as leader of Fianna F_il, was leading the way to change was not lost on those with an acute sense of the ironic.

Much of the language making up the the proposed replacements for Dev’s articles this week can be found in the report of the 1966 Lemass-convened all-party committee on the constitution, which began during his leadership and was later passed into the hands of his successor, Jack Lynch. The “firm will” phrase in the proposed “new” Article Three, is actually three decades old.

For a variety of reasons, not least the flaring of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the proposed changes to Articles Two and Three never made it to a referendum at that time. But the constitutional argument was still raging, particularly in Fianna F_il ranks, throughout the troubles and into the 1990s with Charles Haughey standing out as a firm backer of Dev’s territorial vision.

But the political ground was shifting nevertheless and by the time Albert Reynolds arrived at the helm the principle of giving something to get something was becoming firmly entrenched. Bertie Ahern has merely taken that view to its logical conclusion.

“Without our willingness to contemplate balanced constitutional change as part of an overall agreement, there would have been no negotiations, no agreement and in all probability there would be no peace,” Ahern stated at the recent launch of his party’s referendum campaign.

Given that the proposed changes to the Irish Constitution are twinned this Friday with the proposition that Ireland approve the EU-inspired Amsterdam Treaty, it might never be quite possible to fully assess, in isolation, 1998 voter attitudes to the great constitutional debate.

That debate, meanwhile, has been placed in sharpest focus by the Referendum Commission, an agency that is obliged to present both sides of the argument while encouraging voters to actually cast ballots.

In a series of ads in the country’s newspapers, the commission has outlined the generally accepted arguments both for and against constitutional change.

One argument being presented by the commission in favor of change is that the proposed principle of consent, which would be accepted as well by the British government, “improves the prospects for future unity.”

Another, which reflects the “no” view, is that change will leave the national territory undefined, that it is not possible to have a nation without a defined territory and that “the sense of Irish identity might be lost, particularly by people living in Northern Ireland.”

Both arguments carry merit. Come Friday, it will be left to the will of Irish voters to firmly decide where the greater merit lies.

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