Conference Report: “Sovereignty, Populism and Constitutional Politics”

On August 30-31, Constitution Project @ UCC, in association with the British and Irish Chapter of the International Society of Public Law, played host to a conference on the theme of “Sovereignty, Populism and Constitutional Politics”. 70 delegates saw 33 speakers drawn from academia, legal practice and government spread across 10 panels. The keynote address was delivered by Professor Gráinne de Burca of New York University, who considered the challenges posed to the EU by the rise of populism, and lessons that Europe could learn from Ireland’s experiments with Citizens’ Assemblies.

Grainne de Burca 5

Picture: Professor Gráinne de Burca delivers the keynote address, sponsored by Matheson.

The speakers were an interesting mix of established and familiar faces as well as emerging scholars. Several were making their first visit to Ireland, or their first presentation at an academic conference (which made the quality of the presentations all the more notable). It would not be possible to cover every paper in a brief report, but a few examples will be mentioned.

Panel on Sovereignty David Kenny Raphael Girard Eoin Daly Laura CahillaneIn keeping with the theme of the conference, there was a particular focus on sovereignty, with two panels dedicated to this topic. Clara Hurley proposed that the concept of sovereignty could be helpfully refined using insights from relational autonomy, while Raphael Girard discussed the relationship between populism, constituent power and popular sovereignty. Using insights from the particularities of the Irish context, Maria Cahill distinguished between ‘sovereignty as substantive capacity’ and ‘sovereignty as declaratory capacity’, while Eoin Daly emphasised unaccountability and unreviewability as the hallmark of sovereignty, Laura Cahillane highlighted the relationship between popular sovereignty and trust in the constitution and Michael Kearney noted some indeterminacies around self-determination.

Ireland’s extensive experience of amending the Constitution by way of referendum received detailed coverage. Gavin Barrett gave a general overview of this experience, while other papers focused in on specific aspects, including referendum petitions (Jennifer Kavanagh) and Citizens’ Assemblies (Oran Doyle and Rachael Walsh). David Kenny considered the idea of “referendum culture”, while Hillary Hogan looked in detail at a specific referendum, namely the 2004 citizenship referendum.

Donal CoffeyComparative perspectives were also to the fore. Claudio Martinelli compared the Irish and Italian experiences of expressing popular sovereignty through the referendum process. Donal Coffey shed light on the unexpected and striking degree of influence that the Irish Constitution had on the drafting of the 1947 Burmese Constitution; while Colm O’Cinneide posed the question of what Ireland has to offer to global constitutional debates, concluding that Irish constitutional law finds itself in a moment of comparative constitutional fashionability, which brings both opportunities and responsibilities for Irish constitutional scholars.

Current trends and debates in Irish constitutional case law were considered in panels on judicial power, governance and a dedicated panel on the recent Supreme Court judgment in the Angela Kerins case. Finally, the academic publishing landscape in the broad field of public law was considered in a publishing workshop that explored publishing in the US (Gráinne de Burca), UK (Aileen Kavanagh), Europe (Gavin Barrett) and in traditional and new media (Conor O’Mahony).

The conference combined serious academic debate with a light-hearted and sociable atmosphere (including a sold-out dinner, and pizza for lunch!) We are grateful to all of the speakers and delegates for their participation; to Matheson Solicitors for sponsoring the keynote address; to Deirdre Kelleher for invaluable organisational support; and to Oran Doyle for his assistance as co-chair of the British and Irish Chapter of ICON-S.

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Conference Programme and Registration: “Sovereignty, Populism and Constitutional Politics”, 30-31 August

School of Law, UCC and Constitution Project @ UCC

in association with

The British and Irish Chapter of the International Society of Public Law (ICON-S)

Friday 30th and Saturday 31st August 2019, 1 Lapp’s Quay Executive Education Building, Cork

Keynote Speaker: Professor Gráinne de Burca, New York University

Registration: Admission €40 (students/unwaged €20); optional conference dinner for an additional €35. Please click here: https://conference.ucc.ie/sovereignty-populism-and-constitutional-politics/ucc/Site/Register.

**Note: up to 9 hours of certified Continuous Professional Development will be available.

Conference Theme

The Irish Constitution has always had a unique reverence for popular sovereignty, as evidenced by the fact that it requires that every single proposed amendment of the Constitution be approved by the people in popular referendum. This feature of Irish constitutionalism has many corollaries:

  • it gives the Irish people a practical ownership over their constitution;
  • it puts a great deal of pressure on the referendum process;
  • it emphasises popular democracy, perhaps occasionally at the expense of a sharper focus on representative democracy and the role of parliament;
  • it adds an extra dimension to citizenship;
  • it impacts on Ireland’s engagement in international relations, due to the necessity to authorise the ratification of certain treaties by way of referendum; and
  • it calls upon the courts to supervise the referendum process and give effect to the intention of the electorate.

The amendment process has been invoked relatively frequently. 41 proposed amendments have been put to referendum since 1937, of which 29 were approved. This frequency has noticeably increased, with 13 referendums in the last 10 years (compared with just 8 in the first 40 years of the Constitution’s existence).  All of this means that popular sovereignty is built in to the Irish constitutional experience in a way that is very rare from a comparative perspective. This popular involvement in constitutional change is comparatively unusual and may have helped to protect the Irish constitutional order from populist critiques of elite politics. Its unique advantages and pitfalls will be considered in this conference.

The full programme can be viewed in PDF here, or below:

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The Danger of Frequent Constitutional Amendment

Dr Maria Cahill

The Irish Constitution has been amended 31 times in 82 years, and 8 times in the last 10 years. In total, there have been 43 proposals to amend the Constitution, 12 of which have been put forward in the last 10 years. The proposed referendum on 24th May 2019 already creates history for being the third referendum polling day within 365 days.

This post is not concerned with the substance of any of those amendments or proposals. In fact, it will work on the assumption that all of those proposals – even those that were rejected by a majority of voters – would have improved the quality of our constitutional bargain.

The argument here is that even if the proposals are solid and would advance the common good, there are dangers as well as advantages inherent in frequent constitutional amendment.

The advantages of having a constitutional amendment procedure which can be activated relatively easily are well-canvassed: they allow that constitutional provisions that are no longer fit-for-purpose can be adapted, they prevent the constitution from becoming delegitimised, they allow constitutional change to happen lawfully through established and orderly processes rather than requiring revolution and replacement, and, in our unusual system where popular referenda are held every time we seek to amend the constitution, the amendment procedure allows the people to feel a sense of ownership over the enterprise of constitutional self-government.

Those advantages accrue even if the particular proposal is a particularly bad idea.

But just as there are advantages to proposing constitutional amendments, even if the proposals aren’t good in themselves, so too there are dangers to proposing constitutional amendments even if the proposals aren’t bad in themselves. Those dangers are not so frequently considered.

ConstitutionsThe biggest danger is simply that we forget what the purpose of a constitution is. Identifying the purpose(s) of constitutions admittedly is a difficult job even for constitutional scholars, but when we do engage in such discussions, those conversations almost always include a reference to a particular part of Homer’s Odyssey. On his journey home after long adventures, Captain Odysseus, aka Ulysses, knows that his course takes the ship past a famous island. The beautiful goddess Circe has warned Ulysses that many ships have been lured to this particular island by the beguiling sounds of the sirens coming from the island and that all the sailors who follow the music to the island meet their deaths. To help Ulysses avoid this disastrous fate, Circe advises him to put wax in the ears of the sailors so that they do not hear the music and, if Odysseus himself wants to listen, to have them bind his hands and feet with ropes so that he cannot direct them to the island. Odysseus first makes the sailors to swear an oath that they will not unbind him no matter how much, under the influence of the music, he implores. Then he deafens their ears with the wax and they tie him to the mast. And they all sail safely past the island.

The moral traditionally taken from the story is that, in order to be truly free, we must be prepared to sacrifice instant gratification for the fulfilment of a bigger purpose. It is also a blunt reminder that the desire for instant gratification can be so overwhelming that mutual accountability mechanisms are a very smart way to proceed.

For constitutional theorists (for example, Jon Elster, Stephen Holmes and Philip Pettit), this story is also a metaphor for constitutionalism: Odysseus cannot make the choice that he wants to make in the instant that he hears the music because he had previously consciously chosen not to retain that irresponsible choice as one of his available options. In the same way, so the analogy goes, a political community that sets the course of the nation’s destiny by adopting a written constitution which establishes certain specific institutions endowed with certain specific powers and governed by certain specific rules necessarily constrains its capacity to gratify immediate desires, knowingly and willingly limiting its freedom-in-the-moment for a deeper freedom-through-time.

Constitutions, they say, aren’t supposed to be a mirror image of everything we would like to do in any given moment, or even everything we think we should be able to do in any given moment. They are supposed to be the rules that sometimes require us to sacrifice now in order to retain the possibility of achieving a higher goal. They are supposed to be the rules that we sometimes rail against, that we sometimes long to be released from, but that deep down we know speak to us of what’s best in us as well as what’s best for us. (That’s not to say that constitutional rules always do fulfil this purpose, but that that’s the idea of a constitution.)

Frequent constitutional amendment gives the contrary impression that if there is anything in the constitution that we don’t like right now, we just change it. In this view, a constitution is less a foundational agreement that holds the hopes and dreams of a nation and more a temporary contract which can be revised and re-negotiated every few months or years, a bit like an EU treaty that concretises certain rules but doesn’t grab anyone’s heart.

If anything and everything about the basic bargain of a nation can be changed on a whim – and in the Irish constitutional order, unusually, there are no restrictions whatsoever on what can be amended – there is at least the risk that this creates a deep instability in the legal system, because this attitude to constitutionalism defeats the purpose of having a constitution in the first place. It therefore undermines not only the particular constitution being amended, but the legitimacy of this and any future constitution as a foundational agreement, and eventually even the rule of law itself in that political community. Allied to the instability created in the legal system, it can also create insecurity in the political community: frequent disagreements about the content of the basic commitment unsettle any relationship. This danger, however, can be mitigated if the changes are not terribly significant and/or there is near consensus in favour of or against the proposal.

A lot about constitutions is rhetorical: we mythologise ‘constitutional moments’, ‘founding fathers’ and the apparently-infallible ‘People’; we selectively remember the circumstances in which the constitution was forged; and we celebrate anniversaries with pomp and circumstance. All this rhetoric can seem quite empty, especially to someone who has expert knowledge of the historical events, but it is nonetheless important because it constitutes the founding myth of the nation, and acts as a focal point for the generation and deepening of political community. Retelling the founding myth has some value therefore even when we haven’t got all the facts straight. For the same reason, maintaining the Constitution as a foundational agreement is important even if some of the provisions are imperfect, and changing the rules too often, even if all the changes are beneficial, carries inherent risks that we cannot simply ignore.

With all of this in mind, justifications of amendment proposals should be unsatisfactory to us if they purport to offer only (minor) improvements to the constitutional settlement without counting the wider constitutional cost. And questions can legitimately be raised of any proposal which does not purport to substantially improve the constitutional settlement and/or which is unreflective about the risk that too-frequent amendment proposals compromise the project of constitutionalism and the integrity of the political community.

Dr Maria Cahill lectures in constitutional law at the School of Law at University College Cork.

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Call for Papers: “Sovereignty, Populism and Constitutional Politics”

School of Law, UCC and Constitution Project @ UCC

in association with

The British and Irish Chapter of the International Society of Public Law (ICON-S)

30-31 August 2019

Keynote Speaker: Professor Gráinne de Burca, New York University

The Irish Constitution has always had a unique reverence for popular sovereignty, as evidenced by the fact that it requires that every single proposed amendment of the Constitution be approved by the people in popular referendum. This feature of Irish constitutionalism has many corollaries:

  • it gives the Irish people a practical ownership over their constitution;
  • it puts a great deal of pressure on the referendum process;
  • it emphasises popular democracy, perhaps occasionally at the expense of a sharper focus on representative democracy and the role of parliament;
  • it adds an extra dimension to citizenship;
  • it impacts on Ireland’s engagement in international relations, due to the necessity to authorise the ratification of certain treaties by way of referendum; and
  • it calls upon the courts to supervise the referendum process and give effect to the intention of the electorate.

The amendment process has been invoked relatively frequently. 40 proposed amendments have been put to referendum since 1937, of which 28 were approved. This frequency has noticeably increased, with 12 referendums in the last 10 years (compared with just 8 in the first 40 years of the Constitution’s existence). A substantial proportion of the Constitution has been amended, with some provisions amended repeatedly or even radically. As a result, the Constitution is perhaps less a foundational covenant which endures through time than a conditional contract that can be and is revised and re-negotiated at regular intervals.

All of this means that popular sovereignty is built in to the Irish constitutional experience in a way that is very rare from a comparative perspective. This popular involvement in constitutional change is comparatively unusual and may have helped to protect the Irish constitutional order from populist critiques of elite politics. Its unique advantages and pitfalls are worth considering and showcasing through this conference and proposed edited collection.

The conference organisers invite you to submit a paper or panel that relates to one of the themes below and considers the Irish Constitution in its broadest sense, whether from doctrinal, theoretical, comparative, European, international or interdisciplinary perspectives:

Foundational constitutionalism, including: the constitution as foundational agreement; benefits and risks of frequent amendment; comparative perspectives on such benefits and risks.

The referendum process, including: regulation of campaigns (funding, broadcasting, etc); the Referendum Commission; illegality during campaigns; judicial review of referenda results; case studies on specific referenda.

Popular sovereignty, including: theory of popular sovereignty; primacy of popular sovereignty in Irish constitutionalism; comparative perspectives on the Irish amendment process; link between popular sovereignty and state sovereignty through the referenda on international/EU treaties.

Parliamentary democracy, including: the principle of representation; government control of parliament; the ‘principles and policies’ test.

History of popular sovereignty, including: centenary of 1919 Declaration of Independence; popular sovereignty in 1922 and 1937 Constitutions; state sovereignty as popular sovereignty in 1922 and 1937 Constitutions.

Constitutional dialogue, including: judicial populism; judicial deference to parliament; parliamentary silence; parliamentary engagement with the Constitution; active citizenship and hard cases; the ‘private Attorney General’.

Constitutional reform, including: the work of the Constitutional Convention and Citizens’ Assembly; the work of Oireachtas Committees; visions for future constitutional reform.

Populism, including: the challenge of populism for the Irish constitutional order; the extent to which the constitutional order does or should facilitate popular participation in governance.

Abstracts of 300 words (max.) should be submitted by 26 April 2019 to iconsgbie@gmail.com. Participation decisions will be made by mid-late May.

Selected papers will be invited for publication in an edited collection (subject to peer review). We are close to securing a publishing arrangement and details will be confirmed in due course. Participants wishing to be considered for inclusion in this collection should submit a draft version of their paper by 23 August 2019. Once the selection has been made, the deadline for submission of final drafts will be 1 November 2019. Where this deadline is not met, the slot in the collection will be offered to a reserve paper.

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Why the 1919 Declaration of Independence Matters

Dr Maria Cahill

DeclarationThe 1919 Declaration of Independence is almost always overshadowed, whether by the more poetic and celebrated 1916 Proclamation of Independence or by the mere fact that on the day the Declaration was made, there was a parliament in Ireland for the first time in 120 years.

It is not altogether surprising, then, that Monday’s centenary celebrations focussed more on the anniversary of the First Dáil and the beginning of the War of Independence. It is not altogether surprising that although a commemorative video was made in 2016 in which the descendants 1916 signatories re-read the Proclamation, the same tribute was not made in respect of the relatives of the 27 parliamentarians who were present in the Dáil to make the Declaration (let alone 39 others who were absent for reasons of imprisonment and forced exile and not to mention the remaining 39 who were absent for other reasons).

Still, the 1919 Declaration of Independence, supported by the Message to the Free Nations of the World and the Democratic Programme, is worthy of at least as much attention as the 1916 Proclamation, if only for the reason that it is the declaration of independence that, accompanied by a more successful guerrilla campaign, secured enough legal and political freedom for Ireland that She could procure the rest herself.

Four features of the Declaration stand out.

First, the 1919 Declaration does what every declaration of independence has to do: it paradoxically and unilaterally asserts political and legal freedom on the basis that that freedom already inheres in the people in whose name the declaration is made. The 1919 Declaration does this in a particularly pithy way, opening with the words “the Irish people is by right a free people” (a statement clearly contradicted by the blunt reality that Ireland was being governed from London) and going on to insist that the Irish people “never ceased to repudiate” their freedom (a debatable point: parliaments in Kilkenny in 1366 and Drogheda in 1494 acknowledged the primacy of English law in Ireland, although without a democratic mandate and to no great effect). Being already a free people, at least according to the Declaration, the Irish people affirms this freedom through the declaration, resolving “to secure and maintain its complete independence”. This is the necessary illegality and the logical paradox that takes place at the founding of every state: you assert the authority that you want to have on the basis of an assumption that you are already entitled to that authority.

VoteThe second feature is that the Declaration anchors itself in the political mandate provided to the Irish parliamentarians by means of the December 1918 General Election and uses that mandate as the moral authority which allows them, “in the name of the Irish nation, [to] ratify the establishment of the Irish Republic”. The strength of this political mandate is juxtaposed both with the moral and political illegitimacy of British rule which “is and always has been based on force and fraud and maintained by military occupation against the declared will of the people” and also with the more spontaneous actions of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916, who acted “on behalf of the Irish people” but without a direct mandate, or even widespread popular support. (Of course, a sceptical reading of the Declaration might question how an election that was called by the British government and run according to English laws could become the basis for a political mandate for Irish freedom.)

The third feature, which is characteristic of declarations of independence from around the world, is that the declaration promises a new dawn, in which the common good will be promoted, justice restored and defence secured. In order to achieve these ambitions, the Declaration requires the evacuation of English garrisons, the cessation of foreign government, but most importantly, the primacy of the Irish parliament. The declaration is unequivocal in its insistence that “the elected Representatives of the Irish people alone have power to make laws binding on the people of Ireland, and that the Irish Parliament is the only Parliament to which that people will give its allegiance”. This uncompromising position is later reiterated in Article 12 of the 1922 Constitution (“The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the peace, order and good government of the Irish Free State is vested in the Oireachtas.”) and Article 15 of the 1937 Constitution (“The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is hereby vested in the Oireachtas; no other legislative authority has power to make laws for the State.”) These words cannot now be interpreted literally using the spirit of patriotic fervour which inspired them since that interpretation is belied by the political reality that parliament is institutionally weak and does not have exclusive legislative authority.

Fourthly, the 1919 Declaration of Independence, again in a manner that is typical for declarations of independence generally, appeals to higher authorities, viz., the international community and Almighty God. By securing recognition for the newly-emerging state from the international community, the hope is that the British will be intimidated by the understanding that denying Irish independence will cost them the goodwill of other nations. It was for this reason that the 1919 Declaration was issued in French, as well as Irish and English, and accompanied by the Message to the Free Nations (also issued in French, Irish and English) which ends with the stinging exhortation to the nations of the world “to uphold [Ireland’s] national claim to complete independence as an Irish Republic against the arrogant pretensions of England founded in fraud and sustained only by an overwhelming military occupation” so that “the civilised world having judged between English wrong and Irish right may guarantee to Ireland its permanent support for the maintenance of her national independence”.

It is in the way that they appeal to God that the essential difference between the 1916 and 1919 texts is illuminated. The 1916 Proclamation ends by placing the cause of freedom “under the protection of the Most High God” – a pretty standard invocation – but it goes on to pray not for success or victory or minimal loss of life, rather that “no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice”. It extols the need that Ireland’s children must be willing to “sacrifice themselves” so that the nation can live and “prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.” The final paragraph of the 1919 Declaration begins with a similar invocation, in the line “we humbly commit our destiny to Almighty God who gave our fathers the courage and determination to persevere through long centuries of ruthless tyranny”, but ends with the more confident assertion that the blessing sought is to guide “this the last stage of the struggle” for Ireland’s freedom. The expectation this time is that Ireland’s freedom will be safely secured.

Dr Maria Cahill is a lecturer in constitutional law at University College Cork.

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