The framers of the Irish Constitution emphasised human dignity when much of Europe had abandoned it, writes Niall Guinan
The celebrations of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising have renewed focus on the roots from which our Republic grew. Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of the enactment of the Irish Constitution Bunreacht na hÉireann, an event which is likely to be a rather more subdued affair.
There is a mistaken assumption that the 1937 Constitution represents a backward, indeed almost fascist, Catholic conservatism especially when contrasted with the supposedly outward-looking aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic and its promise to “cherish all the children of nation equally”.
However, when one considers the abysmal situation facing Europe in 1937, it becomes increasingly clear that Bunreacht na hÉireann was a light in a rapidly darkening world.
Among the most maligned parts of the Irish Constitution is the Preamble which opens it. However, those who attack it seem to be driven to such paroxysms of indignation by the words “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity” and “our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ” that they are incapable of reading the rest of it with a clear head.
The drafters, after acknowledging God in this way, proceeded to set down what they saw as the essential purposes of the Constitution, among them “that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured”.
This reference to the “dignity” of the human person was quite unusual at the time. In a 2012 speech given as part of a University College Dublin (UCD) Law School conference, Chief Justice Susan Denham pointed out the dismal context in which our Constitution was born, a time when “an increasing sense of despair descended across continental Europe” with the twin evils of Fascism and communism dominating much of Europe and Russia and the bloody Civil War raging in Spain.
In response to these disturbing developments, Pope Pius XI promulgated a number of encyclicals climaxing, aptly, in Passiontide just before Easter in 1937 with Mit Brennender Sorge and Divini Redemptoris.
In 1931, the Pope had celebrated the 40th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum with Quadregesimo Anno, in which he first discussed the dignity of the human person and which clearly influenced the drafters of the Constitution of Ireland.
In a 2012 paper, Prof. Samuel Moyn of Harvard University asks “Did the Irish Save Civilisation?” a perhaps over-the-top way to note that the reference to dignity in the Preamble of our Constitution was among the first times that the principle of human dignity had been embedded in a constitution. Chief Justice Denham described the drafters of the Irish Constitution as being “far-sighted” in this regard.
In the aftermath of World War Two, there was unsurprisingly a renewed focus on human dignity as the source of human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, produced in 1948, talks about all human persons being “free and equal in dignity and rights.” In 1949, the new Constitution or “Basic Law” for the Federal Republic of Germany enshrined the dignity of the human person as the absolute heart of its new legal order.
The very first words of the substantive text of the Basic Law are “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”
This was to take on greater importance in the context of the development of the European Union (EU).
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) determined in the mid-1960s that community law was superior to national laws. This created a problem in Germany in circumstances where common market rules were found to be contrary to the fundamental, constitutional principle of human dignity. The case in which the problem arose, Stauder v City of Ulm, concerned a decision of the European Commission (EC) providing for the selling of butter at a reduced price to welfare recipients in exchange for a coupon with the recipient’s name on it.
The requirement for the recipient’s name was determined by the German courts to be in violation of human dignity.
The ECJ ultimately recognised that Community Law had to be subject to certain general principles of law including human rights guarantees, laying the foundations for the European Union’s recognition of human rights.
The Catholic faith teaches that each human person has an inviolable dignity derived from the fact that they are loved in to existence by God and made in his image and likeness.
We are, as that great defender of human dignity St John Paul II put it: “The sum of the Father’s love for us.”
We should be extremely proud as a country that the drafters of our Constitution were willing to bear witness to this truth in a Europe that had abandoned it.
We should celebrate their wisdom as we celebrate the founding of our State and we should work against attempts to change the Constitution in a way which would undermine the dignity of each human life by bowing to a throwaway culture in which vast numbers of human beings are dehumanised, destroyed and discarded.
Niall Guinan holds a degree in law and political science from Trinity College Dublin.