Article 48

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The Oireachtas may provide for the initiation by the people of proposals for laws or constitutional amendments.

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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.

Michael Collins

"Give us the future ... we've had enough of your past"

Michael Collins, Anglo Irish Treaty negotiations, London, 1921

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 in session 1922

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.

Darrell Figgis

"For it is a sound rule that the people are generally better than their representatives - wiser of counsel, more disinterested of judgment - and it is therefore provided in the Constitution that there shall be an Assembly of Representatives, but that the people may require of that Assembly that laws be referred to them for final decision, or that laws be made to suit their desire."

Darrell Figgis, Deputy Chairman, Constitution Committee, The Irish Constitution Explained (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;

Article 48

Constitution of the Free State of Ireland

"Article 48. The Oireachtas may provide for the Initiation by the people of proposals for laws or constitutional amendments. Should the Oireachtas fail to make such provision within two years, it shall on the petition of not less than seventy five thousand voters on the register, of whom not more than fifteen thousand shall be voters in any one constituency, either make such provisions or submit the question to the people for decision in accordance with the ordinary regulations governing the Referendum. Any legislation passed by the Oireachtas providing for such Initiation by the people shall provide (1) that such proposals may be initiated on a petition of fifty thousand voters on the register, (2) that if the Oireachtas rejects a proposal so initiated it shall be submitted to the people for decision in accordance with the ordinary regulations governing the Referendum; and (3) that if the Oireachtas enacts a proposal so initiated, such enactment shall be subject to the provisions respecting ordinary legislation or amendments of the Constitution as the case may be."

Article 48, Constitution of the Irish Free State, 1922.

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;

"In moving the adoption of this Article, I may say it will still further associate the people with the forging of the laws of the country, and it puts the power in the hands of the people of even initiating legislation. If a large section of the people feel that a certain law is desirable; and if Parliament fails to introduce the desired legislation, power is given here to the people to initiate legislation themselves. It is the direct complement of the Referendum, and pretty much what can be claimed for the Referendum can be claimed for the Initiative—that it keeps contact between the people and their laws, and keeps responsibility and consciousness in the minds of the people that they are the real and ultimate rulers of the country."

Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Home Affairs in the Provisional Government, Dáil debate, 5th October 1922

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.

Dáil Eireann 1922

"This Constitution should be prized by the people. It was won in toil, in danger, and in stress. It was negotiated on the cliff's edge, and it gives to Ireland the care of her own household. It puts into the hands of the Irish people the making and moulding, and the amending or repealing of their own laws."

Kevin O’Higgins, on the passing of the Constitution of the Irish Free State in the Dail on 25th October 1922.

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.

Eamon de Valera

"Remember that this power of direct legislation is an old one. In the early democracies you had it. It is now being reverted to because of the people's distrust of some of the representative assemblies. It is because representative government has not worked out as it was hoped it would that you have these two checks, this form of direct legislation by the people."

Eamon De Valera, Leader of Fianna Fail, Dáil debate, 16th May 1928

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.

Eamon de Valera

"One of the reasons why I am anxious for it is one of the reasons put forward here when it was accepted by the Provisional Parliament. At that time it was stated that it associated the people with their own laws; it gave them the feeling that they were the ultimate power, the ultimate rulers in the country; it gave them an interest which they would not otherwise have in legislation, and in the laws generally. It gave the people an opportunity of considering certain questions in a way in which they would not be discussed or considered at general elections at all."

Eamon De Valera, Leader of Fianna Fail, Dáil debate on 7th June, 1928

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:

W.T. Cosgrave

"….. the Bill entitled the Constitution (Amendment No. 10) Bill, 1928, which has this day been passed by Dáil Eireann, is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace and safety. …… on the ground that it is undesirable and dangerous"

W. T. Cosgrave, leader of Cumann na nGaedhael (forerunner of Fine Gael), President of the Executive council (Taoiseach) from 1922 to 1932,  Dáil debate on 28th June 1928

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?

"Power to the People"