The last decade has seen some seminal changes in the Irish Constitution, shaping the future of life in Ireland and the experience of Irish youth. After looking at how far we’ve come as a society, the question then looms; how much further can we go? As fresh-faced students and graduates, the world is our oyster, the future is in our hands, whatever cheesy motivator you prefer the bottom line is that future change needs to be considered now. So what amendments could be introduced to better provide for the needs of modern Irish society? Are these amendments possible? And, finally, who should the Constitution provide for, present society or future society?
Recent Constitutional Amendments: The ‘Human Experience’ Trend
Recent amendments have tended to focus primarily on the everyday human experience of the Irish citizen. With amendments to allow for the right to seek abortion and the legal right to same-sex marriage to be included in the highest source of law, the country seemed to finally step into the 21st century. A series of other less newsworthy amendments of the same nature took place over the last decade with a focus on securing Ireland’s position in the EU, further integrating the Irish citizen into the international community both in terms of trade opportunities and the furtherance of human rights protections.
These amendments signpost the direction that Irish society is heading. While it would be foolhardy to think that these amendments have cured the shortcomings in Irish law and society overnight, they certainly point to the development of a more inclusive and societally focused country. So how do we build on this momentum?
Suggestions for Further Reform
Over the last number of years, a number of political parties have been strongly campaigning for a ‘right to housing’ to be included as a fundamental right under the Constitution. While the Bill has completed Dáil Éireann second stage, no recent progress has been made, although last month before the Housing Commission, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien suggested that a referendum on this right could be held next year.
This development would have a huge impact on Irish society, being a fundamental step in tackling the housing crisis by placing a right to housing in the most powerful legal instrument in the jurisdiction. While this is all positive news, no mechanism has been provided for how this would be implemented. Inserting a right to housing is only the first step, this would necessarily have to be followed by policy and legislation to implement such a change, and as past experience has shown us the wheels of the law turn slowly.
Another recent proposal for amendment concerns non-resident voting in Irish presidential elections, extending this franchise to citizens residing outside of the State. This Bill was first introduced in 2019 and is currently before Dáil Éireann second stage. The Bill was initially placed on hold due to more pressing issues relating to Brexit but was restored in July of 2020. However, since 2020 this Bill has received relatively little attention.
The importance of this Bill links back to the issues with housing and the ongoing housing crisis. With many Irish citizens, particularly recent graduates, emigrating, numbers of voters not resident in Ireland during a presidential election have been steadily increasing. For an accurate and democratic election, all citizens regardless of their residency should have the entitlement and ability to vote, with some commentators suggesting that this should be extended even further than just the presidential election. This Bill recognises that society is no longer stagnant, that a country may have citizens spread across the globe at any given time but nonetheless these citizens should be entitled to exercise their right to vote, particularly with polling attendance decreasing over recent years.
Who Are Constitutional Reforms Really For?
This is a question that has plagued legal academics and students of constitutional law and jurisprudence for countless years. When reforming the Constitution to what extent must we bear future society in mind? Should a Constitution include all contemporary values of the society it represents, or, should it operate as a framework providing for broad and more generally accepted rights, allowing it to transcend a particular society during a particular time?
There is no one answer to this. While some turn to the intention of the drafters, looking at minutes of meetings and the actual text of the Constitution to determine whether or not it should be transient, others take a more public policy approach, arguing that the Constitution should fit the current needs of the society it serves. Whichever school of thought you find more convincing, there can be no doubt that the current Constitution has seen some fundamental amendments and it will certainly be interesting to see how much further these amendments will go for the benefit of modern Irish society.
Louise Kennedy – Law Correspondent