The founders of the Irish Free State thought it wise to include a provision, Article 48, in the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State that made the people the ultimate rulers of Ireland by giving them the direct powers to make, mould, amend and repeal their own laws.
This fundamental democratic right was taken away from the people of Ireland without their consent in 1928. What follows is a brief history of Article 48 and how the hypocrisy and power hunger of Irish politicians resulted in a fundamental change to the "Republic" as envisaged by the founders of the state. A short video, the "History of Article 48" is narrated by Professor Dermot Ferriter, Modern Irish History, University College Dublin. In addition, below you can read a more detailed account of the ""History of Article 48" that includes links to the relevant Dáil debates.
History of Article 48.
What follows is a brief history of how direct democracy was first introduced to the Irish constitution in 1922 and subsequently removed from the Constitution in 1928 without the consent of the people of the Ireland.
Following the Irish War of Independence, representatives of the Sinn Féin government and the British government signed an agreement on 6th December 1921 known as the Anglo Irish Treaty that brought an end to the conflict.
In January 1922, the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland was established with Michael Collins as its Chairman.
One of Michael Collin’s first acts was to establish a committee to draft the Constitution of the Irish Free State. Collins appointed himself as Chairman and Darrell Figgis, a member of the executive of Sinn Féin, as deputy Chairman of the committee.
The Constitution Committee convened in the Shelburne Hotel on St Stephen Green and on 15th June 1922 the draft Constitution was published and submitted to the Dáil for its consideration.
Darrell Figgis, highlighted the importance of Article 48 in his book “The Irish Constitution Explained” published in 1922.
Article 48 of the Constitution was inspired by the post First World War constitutions in continental Europe that were designed to foster an active association of the people with law making. The full wording of Article 48 was as follows;
In introducing Article 48 to the Dáil on 5th October 1922, Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs in the Provisional Government, stated the following in support of the direct democracy provisions;
The Constitution of the Irish Free State including Article 48 was adopted by an Act of Dáil Éireann on 25th October 1922. Kevin O’Higgins, speaking in the Dáil that day, highlighted the importance of the provisions of Article 48 in the Constitution that enabled the Irish people to make, mould, amend or repeal their own laws.
However, the Cumann na nGaedhael (forerunner of Fine Gael) government failed to enact the required laws to give effect to Article 48 of the new Constitution.
Almost six years later, on 16th May 1928, Eamon De Valera, the leader of the Fianna Fáil party, submitted a petition with over 96,000 signatures to the Dáil to bring about the direct democracy provisions embodied in Article 48. In introducing the petition to the Dáil De Valera stated.
The Cumann na nGaedhael government’s response to De Valera’s petition was to introduce the Constitution (Amendment No. 10) Bill, 1928 to remove entirely Articles 47 and 48 from the Constitution. It had the power to do this under Article 50 which allowed the Constitution to be amended through ordinary legislation in its initial eight years.
Opposing the removal of Article 48, Eamon De Valera argued passionately for its retention.
However the Cumann na nGaedhael government prevailed and so the bill to remove Article 48 was passed on 28th June 1928. In the Dáil that day the leader of the Cumann na nGaedhael government, W.T. Cosgrave, declared that:
Ironically, less than 6 years earlier, W. T. Cosgrave, as Chairman of the Provisional Government, had supported the inclusion of Article 48 in the Constitution. Now, however, with the reins of power firmly in his hands, he instigated and defended its abolition.
Fast forward to 1937, De Valera, now leader of the Fianna Fail government, proposed a new Constitution of Ireland to replace the Constitution of the Irish Free State. Although only nine years earlier De Valera had championed the direct democracy provisions contained in Article 48 of the 1922 Constitution he failed to reintroduce these provisions in his new Constitution. Now that De Valera had power firmly in his hands he did not want any possible interference from the people of Ireland by means of petitions.
The 1922 Constitution reflected a very positive view of the role of direct democracy, wherein the people could initiate proposals for laws or constitutional amendments. As the centenary of 1916 approaches, surely the time come for the Irish Republic to revisit the democratic vision of the founders of the Irish Free State?