Politicians are no strangers to occasionally shouting about the Constitution either proposing a referendum and constitutional change to fix a topical issue (such as the level of personal injury awards ) or, more usually for Government parties, offering the Constitution as a reason why a particular law or policy cannot happen (such as rent freezes).
These issues can come up in a seemingly ad hoc manner during the normal cut and thrust of political discourse but when it comes to General Elections parties tend to solidify their plans for constitutional change in their manifestos. Over the years some of the proposed changes can find their way through the Dáil and end up getting put to the people as a result of a manifesto promise while others can be best described as fanciful. The nature of the proposed amendments often arise in response to a current crisis but longer term strategic changes can come forward in manifestos too.
In the 2016 general election for example Fianna Fáil proposed an amendment to protect private pension funds from Government levies – this followed a backlash to the Fine Gael- Labour government placing a levy on such pensions. Fine Gael and Labour proposed a referendum on Article 41.2.1 of Bunreacht na hEireann regarding a “woman’s life within the home”. The Social Democrats proposed a referendum on the public ownership of a water utility. None of these proposals saw the light of day although they had varying degrees of consideration. The absence of a promise to enact a particular change does not however, preclude it ever happening. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael committed expressly to holding a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment in their 2016 manifestos for example.
The main party manifestos for the 2020 general election make a number of proposals for change with some parties agreeing that certain amendments should be brought forward while some proposals are being pushed by one party only. The below is by no means a full picture of all Constitutional issues highlighted by parties – it is instead an look at some of the more clearly expressed proposals for constitutional amendment contained in the main party manifestos.
Fine Gael’s manifesto is fairly light on talk of constitutional amendment however it does contain a commitment to amend the constitution to allow the Oireachtas to set guidelines on insurance premiums should other proposed reforms not work out. It is not entirely clear what exactly is envisaged here and what specific amendment is required to obtain this aim.
Fianna Fáil’s manifesto is similarly shy on proposing Constitutional amendments although there are some commitments to ensuring that existing constitutional rights, particularly in the area of special needs education, can be vindicated. Reference is also made to the constitutional issues surrounding the status of Northern Ireland and how changes could come about.
Sinn Féin’s manifesto makes similar references with some discussion on the need for a new constitution in the event of a United Ireland happening. Differently to the FF and FG Sinn Féin are proposing a number of constitutional amendments. They suggest that Ireland’s neutrality be constitutionally recognised to allow the Defence Forces to “to continue its important role as peacekeepers across the globe.”. Sinn Féin (similarly to a number of other parties) are proposing to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution. Sinn Féin do however clarify that their wording “does not mean that Government would have a responsibility to give every person a set of keys to a new home. Rather, it would place a strong obligation on Government to vindicate the right to a home through its laws, policies and budgets.”. Sinn Féin are also continuing on the 2016 hot topic of putting the public ownership of a water utility on a constitutional basis. Sinn Féin finally want to amend the constitution to remove the controversial ‘money message’ procedure for striking down opposition bills. Although the issue has attracted considerable attention during the campaign there is no mention of the Special Criminal Court in the Sinn Féin manifesto.
The Labour Party have taken a slightly different tack. For their part they pledge to establish a new Convention on the Constitution which would be informed by citizens’ conventions with a view to proposing a new modernised constitution rather than continuing a process of “piecemeal” amendment. They propose that this modernised Constitution would include recognition of the diversity of modern Ireland; full gender equality; permanent public ownership of utilities, including Irish Water; recognition of the right to housing and other socio-economic rights. In terms of more traditional proposals for amendment Labour have pledged to recognise the right of access to work places by a trade union representative through a constitutional amendment if necessary.
The Green Party , like Sinn Féin and others are proposing an amendment around the provision of water while also taking the opportunity to consider a wording which would “enhance the rights of the environment”. The Green Party are proposing an amendment which would “guarantee the right to a home” which although similar to the Sinn Féin pledge does use a different wording – whether there would be an appreciable difference between the right to a home and the right to housing is a matter of interpretation. The Green Party also wish to amend the constitutional clause on a woman’s place in the home to “both remove sexist language and to reflect the importance of all forms of care and of those being cared for”. The Green Party are also proposing a number of changes in procedural matters such as the age of voting in elections which they propose to lower to 16 and the introduction of an amendment to allow citizens directly initiate referendums to amend the Constitution in a manner similar to many US States.
The Social Democrats uniquely have pledged to reform the area of property rights in the constitution “to better reflect the common good so that issues in relation to both private rented accommodation and upward only rent reviews on commercial property can be addressed.”. Similarly to many other parties they are proposing to insert a right to housing into the Constitution “in a way that would place a significant responsibility on the Government to vindicate this right through its actions.”.
People Before Profit’s manifesto, similarly to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, is light on proposed constitutional amendments but it does include a pledge to put forward an amendment to recognise the right to housing. Interestingly although they do recognise what they term the “human right” to water they have no express proposal for recognising this right on a constitutional basis in their manifesto.
Overall the main parties make a number of proposals with parties in the middle/right tending not to propose too much by way of amendment and those on the broader left proposing a number of similar amendments – water and housing featuring strongly – which each party having some unique offering. The extent to which any of the proposed amendments will see the light of day is highly questionable if past election cycles are anything to go by however.
Dr Seán Ó Conaill teaches Dlí Bunreachtúil (Constitutional Law) at the School of Law at University College Cork.