The Irish State - Constitution

The basic law of the State is the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) adopted by referendum in 1937. It is the successor to the Constitution of Dáil Éireann (1919) and the Constitution of the Irish Free State (1922). The Constitution states that all legislative, executive and judicial powers of Government derive under God from the people. It sets out the formof government and defines the powers of the President, of the two Houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament), and of the Government. It defines the structure and powers of the Courts, and it contains a number of directive principles of social policy for the general guidance of the Oireachtas.

The Constitution regulates the method of election of the President and defines the President’s powers inrelation to the two Houses of the Oireachtas and the Government. It also defines the system of Courts and regulates the appointment of the judiciary.The Constitution sets out the fundamental rights of the citizen. The definition of rights covers five broad headings: Personal Rights, The Family, Education, Private Property and Religion.

Personal Rights: the Constitution declares that all citizens are equal before the law, it guarantees to defend and vindicate the personal rights of citizens, it provides that there will be no deprivation of liberty except in accordance with law, it provides for the right of Habeas Corpus, it guarantees the inviolability of citizens’ dwellings except in accordance with law, it guarantees the liberty to express freely one’s convictions and opinions, the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, and the right to form associations and unions. The Supreme Court has identified additional personal rights which, although not listed in the Constitution, are protected by it, such as the right to travel and to marry and the right of access to the Courts.

The Family: through the Constitution the State guarantees to protect the family and the institution of marriage.

Education: the State recognises the primacy of the family in the education of children and undertakes to provide for free primary education and to supplement and aid private educational initiative with due regard to the rights of parents.

Private Property: the right to hold private property is guaranteed and is subject only to the exigencies of the common good.

Religion: the Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion, subject only to public order and morality.

The Constitution may be amended only by an Act of the Oireachtas, the Bill for which has been approved by the people in a referendum after being passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. Up to l993 the people had approved 11 Bills in referenda to amend the Constitution.

Citizens, and in certain cases non-citizens, have the right to apply to the Courts to protect from infringement their rights under the Constitution. They may also apply to have a judgement pronounced as to whether legislation is compatible with the Constitution, provided the legislation affects, or is likely to affect, the person challenging it. Moreover, the President may, before signing a Bill, refer it to the Supreme Court for a decision on its compatibility with the Constitution. These procedures have been employed on a number of occasions.

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