The Irish Constitution

Introduction

The Irish Constitution (or Bunreacht na hÉireann) was ratified by the Irish people in 1937. It is the fundamental law of the State.

Every part of the Constitution is set out in both the Irish and English languages. Article 8 states that the Irish language is the first official language and that the English language is recognised as a second official language.

The Constitution establishes the branches or organs of government, it establishes the courts and it also sets out how those institutions should be run. It also describes the fundamental rights of every Irish citizen.

The Constitution is also part of a wider human rights framework in Ireland. This refers to all legal and other human rights commitments made by Ireland, including treaties under the United Nations, the European Convention of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Read more on ihrec.ie.

Structure of the Constitution

The Constitution contains 50 articles.

Articles 1-39 define the functions of the State and its agencies and set out the separation of powers in the State.

Articles 40-44 provide for the fundamental rights of Irish citizens.

The remaining articles are:

Article 45, which sets out directive principles of social policy

Article 46, which sets out how the Constitution may be amended

Article 47, which governs referendums

Articles 48-50, which repealed the previous Constitution (of Saorstát Éireann) and ensured the continuance of laws

The Constitution and legislation

One of the most important Articles of the Constitution is Article 15.4, which states that the Oireachtas must not enact any law that is repugnant to the Constitution (conflicts with the Constitution). This means that the Constitution is superior to all other law.

If any element of an existing law is found to be repugnant to the Constitution, that element of the law is invalid (Article 15.4.2).

If a proposed new law would be repugnant to the Constitution, it cannot be enacted unless the Constitution has been amended accordingly – see 'Amending the Constitution' below.

Article 25 provides that Bills passed by both houses of the Oireachtas should be presented to the President for signature. Once a Bill has been signed by the President, it becomes law. However, Article 26 provides that the President may refer the Bill to the Supreme Court to decide whether or not it is repugnant to the Constitution. The President will not sign the Bill into law if the Supreme Court decides against it.

Every law that is enacted is presumed to be constitutional until it is proven not to be. The High Court has the power or jurisdiction to cancel any law or part of any law that is repugnant to the Constitution. Read more in our document on unconstitutional legislation.

Amending the Constitution

The consent of the Irish people is needed before the Constitution can be amended. This means that amendments to the Constitution can only be made by way of a constitutional referendum. Up to 2018, 35 constitutional referendums had been held, of which 29 resulted in amendments to the Constitution. A list of the amending Acts is at the front of the Constitution published on irishstatutebook.ie.

A referendum on the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018 took place on 25 May 2018. A majority of voters approved the referendum proposal – you can read about the result on referendum.ie. A provisional certificate stating the referendum result was published in Iris Oifigiúil (pdf) (the State Gazette) on 29 May 2018.

If no petition challenging the result is presented to the High Court within 7 days of its publication, the certificate becomes final. The President will then sign the Bill to change the Constitution and the Constitution will be amended.

Read more about constitutional referendums.

How to apply

You can access a full copy of the Constitution on irishstatutebook.ie. You may also order a copy from the Government Publications Office and it is available in bookshops nationwide.

If you feel that your constitutional rights are being violated, you may wish to engage a solicitor. The Law Society of Ireland has a list of all solicitors who hold a current practising certificate.

The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) operate a nationwide network of legal advice clinics. These clinics are confidential, free of charge and open to all.

Page edited: 31 May 2018