The Irish Constitution and its ‘Weaker Sections’

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools.

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools. Credit:

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times titled Budget 2015: How constitutional is the behaviour of our Minister for Finance?. The article is by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University, and is well worth a read for the data it shows.

The trends in relation to poverty, emigration and regional inequalities laid out in this article are shocking. The fact that the government is planning on introducing what the author calls ‘tax cuts for fat cats’ illustrates very clearly where their priorities lie.

However, Michael Noonan might well argue that cutting taxes for the wealthier strata of Irish society is intended to reverse these trends, and hence he is operating in keeping with the Constitution, and that, contrary to the author’s suggestion, he is indeed ‘safeguarding with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’, or, in more common terms, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

The starting point of such an argument is the orthodox position that economic growth is beneficial to the whole of society because it leads to an improvement in public finances, and to pursue economic growth you have to maintain an attractive climate for investment. This in turn gives the government more leeway to ‘safeguard the weaker sections of the community’. This position is adhered to by all the main political parties. They all claim that maintaining an attractive business climate -i.e. tax cuts for fat cats- is the precondition for ‘safeguarding the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’. They would likely argue that the primary economic interest of the weaker sections of the community is having a job and making sure their boss has a viable business. That’s why they say “jobs jobs jobs”, all the time, like crazed fanatics. Besides, what politician does not claim to be acting in the interests of compassion and social justice? Even the Tory party in the UK does that nowadays.

What is a constitution for, anyway? One of the major democratic events in recent decades was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. After a massive social mobilisation, a new constitution was drafted that guaranteed the political and social rights of broad masses of people hitherto excluded from the political process. It is a common sight to see workers, women, peasants and people from sections of society previously excluded from political life taking to the streets with copies of the constitution in their hand: it is their constitution, and they charge themselves with enforcing it. The idea that the strong should look after the weak, expressed in Ireland’s Constitution and cited by the author here, is at odds with this kind of citizen-led democratic government. Democracy can never be the weak drawing attention to their weakness and calling upon the ruling powers to look after them – at best, that is benevolent oligarchy.

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