Main institutions of the Irish State
Ireland is a constitutional republic, which means that the fundamental rules that determine how the State behaves, how laws are made, and how power should be used are set out in a written constitution.
It also means that the people of Ireland elect who they want to represent them, govern them, and make laws on their behalf.
The Irish Constitution establishes and describes the main institutions of the State. The power to run the State is divided into 3 separate branches:
- The legislature (or legislative branch)
- The executive (or executive branch)
- The judiciary (or judicial branch)
The Constitution tries to keep these powers separate to guarantee that there is not too much power in the hands of one institution of the State.
Separation of powers
The Irish Constitution says that all of the power of the State comes from the Irish people.
It also says that that the power to govern is divided between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
The executive has the power to enforce the law, run the departments of the State and set the agenda of the Oireachtas. The government, led by the Taoiseach, has the executive power of the State. See ‘The Executive’ below.
The judicial has the power to interpret the law. The Irish courts system has this power, which includes the power to decide if a piece of legislation or law is unconstitutional. See ‘The judiciary’ below.
The Constitution sets out how these state powers should work, and puts in place checks and balances to prevent institutions from having too much power.
The legislative power is the power to make laws. The Oireachtas does this through introducing and changing legislation. Articles 15 to 27 of the Constitution give this power to the national parliament or the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas comprises:
The main function of the Oireachtas is to make new laws and amend existing laws. New laws start as Bills, and must be debated by the Dáil and Seanad and passed by both houses before the President can sign the bill into law. If the Seanad does not pass a bill, the Dáil can still enter the bill into law, but must pass a resolution bypassing the Seanad. When a bill becomes law, it is known as an Act of the Oireachtas.
Any sitting TD (Teachta Dála, the name given to elected members of the Dáil) or Senator can publish a bill and try to have it passed by the House, but the Bill must have the government’s support if it involves spending public money.
The President has the power to refer a bill to the Supreme Court to seek a judgment that the law is constitutional.
TDs are elected in general elections, which must be held at least every 5 years. Senators are either appointed by the Taoiseach, or elected in Seanad elections, which take place after a general election has been held.
The Oireachtas also elects the government and passes budgets for government departments.
Executive power includes the power to execute or carry out laws with the assistance of the civil service, police force and military. The head of Government is the Taoiseach, who is nominated by the Dáil. The Taoiseach nominates a deputy (the Tánaiste) and a cabinet of ministers to take responsibility for the departments of government.
The Government is usually formed by the largest party in the Dáil after a general election. A Government formed from two or more parties is called a coalition government.
The Government must have at least 7 members (which must include the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance), and at most 15 members. A maximum of 2 senators can be appointed as Ministers.
The government is answerable to Dáil Éireann, and will not survive without the support of the majority of TDs.
The judicial power is the power to interpret and apply the law to disputes and conflicts that arise between the State and the individual and disputes and conflicts that arise between individuals. Articles 34 to 37 of the Constitution give this power to the courts.
Under Article 35, judges of the courts are independent of the government and can only be removed through a resolution of both houses of the Oireachtas for misbehaviour or incapacity.
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