Economic Rights in the Drafting of the Irish Free State Constitution

UCC logoAt the Irish Jurisprudence Society (IJS) Symposium, the fifth paper is being delivered by Thomas Patrick Murray (UCD) on The Politics of Property and Principle: Economic Rights in the Drafting of the Irish Free State Constitution. It is a fascinating use of archival material to underpin a theoretical discussion of the deliberations of the committee drafting the IFS constitution concerning the possibilities of constitutional engineering to create economic constraints and guarantees. In particular, he compares various drafts of various committee members on various issues, and locates their perspectives in their life experiences, religious convictions, and political beliefs. His conclusion is that an initial radical draft of socio-economic rights fell foul of external vested interests and the belief-systems of the majority of the committee.

Murray shows that it is clear from the archives and memoirs that, at the outset, the drafting committee paid significant attention to the economic foundations of the emerging Free State. Although economic freedom was to be secured in the first instance through formal democratic mechanisms, the framers also canvassed a number of binding economic provisions for inclusion. In particular, their focus was upon the principle of economic sovereignty, concerning land (especially farm land) and other natural resources (especially for energy generation) and the right to free elementary education.

Murray the demonstrates that the committee’s sphere of action was quite bounded and indeed subject to influence from outside interests. The main interest of the provisional government was in maintaining social and political order and avoiding controversy. Countervailing economic interests featured too, especially the opposition of the farming lobby to any re-distribution of land. Moreover, the Catholic Church was unhappy with the socio-economic rights proposals, especially the provisions relating to education. The committee therefore kept the constitutional text to the bare minimum to ensure its success; controversial provisions were carefully curtailed; and established interests were assuaged. Murray concluded on this point, then, that, faced with the need to establish the legitimacy of the state, any innovation that might threaten established property-holders or any moral principle that might deny a hierarchical role for the Church was deemed ‘controversial’ and accordingly postponed.

But Muarry goes further. He argues that the members were not only constrained by various social boundaries, they were also necessarily constrained by their own boundaries of thought. In other words, various features of the prevailing discourse facilitated the diminution of the committee’s initial economic provisions. Most members of the committee were in thrall to the assertive Catholic-Nationalist ethos of early twentieth-century Dublin, and this prevailing ‘Irish Ireland’ discourse imposed significant limitations on the possibilities of embedding socio-economic rights in the constitution. Although those few members of the committee from outside of this political culture appear to have been more open to the lived experience of poverty and were more amenable to the substantive promotion of economic rights, their views did not prevail against the established discourse. Murray concluded on this point, then, that the pursuit of ‘Irish Ireland’ amounted to something very like an official othodoxy. Conversely, egalitarian discourses, envisioning a society based on principles of rational-legal equality and interdependent citizenship, came to be suppressed. Consequently, the committee’s initial economic rights proposals greatly watered down; prevailing ‘Irish Ireland’ discuorse meant this was not seen as wrong.