Power to the people? Reinstate 48 and Irish politics

Just how useful could Article 48 be to Irish politics in the here and now?


Looking at the maelstrom that is our current legislature, the French Third Republic comes to mind. When it was established in the late nineteenth ­century, our Gallic cousins were plagued by a lack of consensus amongst the republicans and the monarchists. It was a holy mess. They reached a compromise, however; a temporary solution to a long term problem. They established a temporary republic, a decision that ultimately changed the political landscape of the country. Apparently the people realised that a democratic republic was, in fact, a better deal.

This republican ideal, of a country ruled for and by the people, was just that; ideal. The people began to realise that they shouldn’t have to pay one­tenth of their wages to a lord who already had enough money, nor should they be obliged to profess a certain religion because the lord or prince or whatever of their area said so, and that they too should have the equal chance to better themselves by the fruits of their labour. The idea of a democracy became very attractive.

However, what happens when the democracy begins to falter? Or when a country is so diverse in its political colours, that no majority can be established? Or what about a country that doesn’t even know what it wants anymore? Those who were banished in previous elections, march victoriously in the next. “Red­line” and “key” issues for voters are not reflected by the selection of elected candidates. We look set up for yet another disappointment. Put bluntly, what is going on?


Returning to Ireland, a rather strange paradox arose after the introduction of the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which entrenches the statutory prohibition of abortion at constitutional level. There followed a series of referenda in the 1990s that proceeded to protect the right to travel to access abortion, and the right to information about the services available abroad. The constitution is quite literally saying, “you can do it, just not here, thanks.” In light of the public appeal to have the 8th repealed, the fundamental inconsistency of these provisions have finally been brought to light.

If the current extensive campaign cannot push politicians to actually let the people decide for themselves on the matter, seeing as it was the people who made the initial decision all those years ago, then it is hard to see the point of democracy. The public are screaming for a choice about choice. But the government must be on our side in order to hold any sort of referendum. If they don’t agree, despite the fact that they are elected and paid to represent us, then we can kiss goodbye to the notion of change.

We celebrate the success of the Marriage Equality referendum, but this met very little tangible opposition from within. The no vote was, in political terms, an unrepresented minority.


Those on the inside are no longer on our side. We elect our parliament to represent us and our interests, but when they fail to do just this, the most we can do is wait until the next election and not vote them back in again. But for some reason we seem to vote the same people in anyway. Logic.

Moreover, you may send a TD to Leinster House with a mandate, and they may genuinely want to vouch for, but once the party whip comes into play, they are quite powerless and your worries are disregarded. The party whip is central to Irish Politics, and Article 48 may very well serve to dilute that domination.

It is frustrating to be faced with the same choice every time we go to the ballot box. Do we vote for the new radical who took up politics post­2008, and take a risk on their capabilities, or do we choose the one who has consistently done a mediocre job, nothing special, but nothing disastrous? Or maybe we should vote the bad ones back in – they said they’re sorry, so obviously they won’t do it again.

But once we vote them in, there is no accountability. Where is the justice in that?

Reinstate 48

When presented with an election which seems to have been ineffective in terms of forming a government, and establishment parties who appear unable to place the national interest above their own, it’s only natural to question how we do politics.

It’s equally understandable, given the centenary saturation we’re experiencing at the moment, to look to historical precedent for answers. The Reinstate 48 Campaign – a drive to see the restoration of Article 48 of the 1922 Constitution, which “provide[d] for the Initiation by the people of proposals for laws and constitutional amendments … on the petition of no less than seventy thousand voters on the register’’, is perhaps the best example of this fact.

However, to transplant a piece of legislation from the formation of the state to the present requires a basic understanding of its history – something which is lacking in some respects. The first thing to remember is that the 1922 constitution was introduced at a time of intense political discontent. The Anglo­Irish Treaty had just been negotiated and the Free State was dealt a hand by David Lloyd George that would lead to civil war. Michael Collins, who both negotiated the treaty and was chairperson of the committee tasked with drafting the constitution, could see the stresses within Irish public affairs and sought to create a document which could bring the anti­-treatyites on side.

The idea was, as J. J. Lee says, to create a “republican constitution” that could quickly resolve contentious issues like partition, treaty ports and the oath of allegiance. It was not so much, to use the Reinstate 48 slogan, “Power to the people”, as it was “Keep the people together”!

Now I know Ireland in the 1920s was a bastion of progress and all, but Article 48 did not mean our ancestors were more involved or invested in the democratic process. At best they were on par with us. This much can be said because, let alone the fact that Cumann na nGaedheal enjoyed effective ownership of the Dáil (simpler times, Enda!), Article 48 was never used in practice.

There was, in fact, only one effort to bring it to bear. This came in the wake of the 1927 election in which 44 Fianna Fáil candidates were elected. Their leader, Éamon de Valera, faced a considerable headache as he and his party had resolved not to take their seats. They had done so on account of the oath of allegiance to the British monarch and commonwealth which all incoming TDs were required to take.

When the Dáil was convened on 27 June, the “Soldiers of Destiny” held firm on not taking the oath. They then staged a daring attempt to enter the debating chamber, only to find they were locked out (destiny denied, I suppose).

De Valera took some flak for his theatrics and “aware of the possible damage to Fianna Fáil”, to quote Dermot Keogh, he invoked Article 48. This led to a campaign to collect 75,000 signatures in order to remove the oath from the constitution. In response, then Taoiseach W. T. Cosgrave pulled Articles 47 (which dealt with rights of plebiscite) and 48 on grounds of protecting the national interest from subversion.

This was a genuine fear in light of Fianna Fáil’s increasing presence on the public stage, but Cosgrave must also have wanted to keep the other side out. As the Wu­Tang Clan eloquently put it, “You best protect ya neck.”

De Valera’s campaign was not, as the Reinstate 48 website would have us believe, about “direct democracy”. This was a rather cynical attempt by a back-pedalling politician to remove one of the barriers to his party assuming the reins of power. It was not about the people assuming ownership of their political system; it was about de Valera mobilising them to affirm his command over their political system.

It is not unfair to describe de Valera’s 1927 power play as cynical. Indeed, Fianna Fáil did not, with the Long Fellow at the helm, champion Article 48 upon forming government in 1932. What’s more, when the chance came for de Valera to make an influential stamp on the constitutional domain i.e. the adoption of Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937, he did not resurrect Articles 47 and 48. We want our maidens happy but politically disengaged, or something like that.

So those of us who are sick of the current governmental malaise and turn to Reinstate 48 for solace are presented with some historical difficulties. Article 48 was introduced with very specific circumstances in mind. They were the deep fissures emerging in the fledgling Free State and not, of course, the predicaments of a post­ Celtic Tiger Ireland. More importantly, the principles it enshrined were never applied, not once. Even when de Valera sought to put Article 48 into practice, he did so to get the Fianna Fáil party and not the voice of the everyday citizen into Leinster House.

This is not to discredit the Reinstate 48 movement. If you were to read Article 48 with no knowledge of its origins, you might be forgiven for thinking it belonged to the constitution of one of our much envied Scandinavian neighbours. It’s a brilliantly idealistic and, in many respects, practical expression of social democracy. In essence, we could bypass poorly acted­ upon party manifestos and place the issues we want addressed on the floor of the Dáil debating chamber. However, we cannot look to precedent to apply it. We must refashion it, if it is to be re-introduced, to suit our needs, in our time. The rose-­tinted glasses simply aren’t going to work.


Article 48 will not solve all of our problems, not least politically. We will still be at the mercy of those occupying opposition and particularly government benches. The power to turn any petition arising from Article 48 into law will, after all, require their ratification. However, in terms of initiating legislation, we would no longer be on the outside looking in. The business of the Dáil would be ours to dictate. Perhaps the interests of the public would be better dealt with if, in a very direct way, we could have them included the Ceann Comhairle’s agenda.

All this would have, of course, to go hand in hand with a cultural shift in how we do politics. We need public representatives prepared to place the wellbeing of the state over that of their party’s polling figures or indeed, their political survival.

Hopefully, the reintroduction of Article 48, which has, at its most basic level, the national interest at heart, would bring about this change. You’d have to say it’s worth a shot. It has a strong chance of succeeding.

Of course, it could fail. Even so, we’ll have evaluated our position and attempted to move forward. And this is a positive step. Because if we simply flag issues and do not make an effort to solve them, we’re not moving forward at all.

Bláithín Sheil and Aaron Matheson Reen.