Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The myth of Articles 2 and 3

This year Ireland marks the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a historic accord that allowed the island of Ireland the opportunity to move away from its troublesome history and move towards a better and brighter future.

There is one aspect of that agreement however which seems to have caused confusion. It seems to me that a lot of uncertainty and misinterpretation has arisen over alterations to Ireland's constitution, brought about by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. I'd like to discuss the issue right now and what I like to call the myth of Articles 2 and 3.

Firstly the back story and I'll try not to get too heavy here. The Irish constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann) came into being in 1937 following the abdication crisis of 1936 in Britain and was the brainchild of Eamon de Valera, who was in government at the time. Edward VIII had abdicated in order to marry the American divorcee Wallace Simpson and this presented de Valera with a golden opportunity to replace the Constitution of the Irish Free State which had been around since 1922. The Free State's constitution was quite Anglo-Irish in its make-up which didn't sit well with Dev's staunch republicanism. He had systematically been picking apart the old constitution since coming to power and decided to bring in considerable changes via the new constitution. Among these changes included changing the name of the state to 'Eire' ('Ireland') and the acknowledgement of the 'special position' of the Catholic Church in Ireland (removed in 1973).

While the above articles did not go down very well with the unionist community in Ireland's north, there were two articles in particular which REALLY provoked bitterness and hostility. These would simply come to be known as 'Articles 2 and 3' and they certainly stayed true to de Valera's deep beliefs.

Articles 2 and 3 acknowledged the existence of the Irish nation and acknowledged it in geographical terms stating that until reunification came about, the powers of the constitution would apply only to the 26 county Irish state. Here is the text in full from the Articles in de Valera's 1937 constitution:

Article 2

'The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.'

Article 3

'Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the parliament and government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory, the laws enacted by the parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstat Éireann and the like extra-territorial effect.'

It is not surprising that such statements aroused the ire of the unionist community although in reality all the constitution was doing was setting out standard Irish nationalist principles. That the country (or nation) is the island, and until reunification of the island takes place, Irish laws will extend purely to the Irish state. Simple really.

Unionists however did not appreciate such sentiments being openly expressed in a constitutional document and for the next sixty or so years there were repeated calls for amendments to be made to the constitution. The talks for the Good Friday Agreement allowed the Articles to be used as a bargaining chip of sorts and it was agreed that a proposal to change the Articles would be put to the electorate in the Irish Republic as part of any deal. This of course is precisely what happened and the Articles as written above were amended to the following...

Article 2

'It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.'

Article 3

1. It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament that existed immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution.

2. Institutions with executive powers and functions that are shared between those jurisdictions may be established by their respective responsible authorities for stated purposes and may exercise powers and functions in respect of all or any part of the island.

Here is where the facts become blurred and myth sets in. The common misconception surrounding these alterations suggests that the Republic removed its claim over the North and redefined its nationalist beliefs. Wrong. Let me explain why. The 1937 constitution stated that the Irish nation could be determined in geographical terms. It was, according to the document, the "island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas".

So what's different in the amended Article 2 then? Very little in truth. Article 2 now states that "It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation."

Now then notice how the Irish nation is STILL spelt out in geographical terms. In fact, almost right down to the exact wording of the 1937 version! According to the amendments, the Irish nation continues to be defined as "the island of Ireland...its islands and seas". EXACTLY like the 1937 constitution states. The only change is that it's now said that being part of the Irish nation is an "entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island". Nothing objectionable about any of that from a nationalist perspective. If anything, you'd think unionists would find it objectionable that the Irish constitution is saying that people born in the island (which would include unionists) have it as a 'birthright' to be part of the Irish nation!

Surely such a sentiment confirms that the Irish constitution still believes the island of Ireland to be the territory of the Irish nation? Wasn't that the whole problem in the first place? You see the funny thing about all this is, rather than 'removing the original Article 2' which is a myth that you often hear, if anything the Irish constitution simply clarified things in better terms!

With regards to Article 3, this was originally meant to be purely clarification of Article 2. De Valera was simply stating that until Irish Unity took place (or as he put it 'pending re-integration'), laws would only apply to the 26 counties in the south. The recent amendment of Article 3 is an updated, more long-winded version of the original article but the essence is the same. It re-affirms the aspiration for reunification but this time acknowledges that it can only come about through the principle of consent (which we've all been well aware of for some time now). In truth it's not that different to the original which it replaced. It states that the "firm will" of the Irish nation is "to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions".

So in other words the will of the Irish nation - which is the island remember - is to unite all of the people who share the island's territory. Basically, the will of the Irish nation is for an all-island State.

These articles are more like acknowledgements than 'amendments'.

The fact of the matter is that what occurred in 1998 did not 'remove claims', or 'redefine the Irish nation' or whatever myth political commentators would have you believe. Its purpose was simply to alleviate fears within the unionist community. Fears which were groundless anyway. It did not change the way Irish nationalists/republicans viewed the North, it simply clarified this view in a manner which did not antagonise the unionist community - which was the fault of the original Articles 2 and 3.

There was an interesting report on BBC NI's Politics Show programme over the weekend on Articles 2 and 3 and while watching it I heard the same old myths being spouted - which is why I decided to write this piece. You can catch the report from the recent programme here if you are interested in seeing it. One aspect of the programme which I found very interesting though was hearing from Fianna Fáil TD Martin Mansergh, who was the party's Special Advisor on NI, revealing how he was the one who had the responsibility for redrafting the amended articles. He was asked by the reporter if he had difficulty winning consent from his party colleagues for the rewritten articles. He replied:

"It was something that had to be handled very carefully, but it turned out to be almost completely successful."

I do not disagree with his assertion. It's not often that I express admiration towards Fianna Fail ministers on United Irelander, as many of you well know, but I will pay Mr Mansergh a huge compliment because I consider his redrafting of the articles to be quite masterful. In fact I would go so far as to say that it was magnificent.

Don't forget that you're talking about articles which have provoked fury and consternation for several decades, and this man had the responsibility of wording new articles that not only adhered to his party's republican principles, but which also would prove acceptable to the unionist community. No mean feat to pull that off. But he managed it. He managed it quite majestically in fact.

In the BBC piece I felt Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin summed things up best when asked to give his thoughts on the redrafted Articles. He remarked:

"This was a change in wording ; it was not a change in intent. The obligation remains constitutionally on Irish governments to pursue Irish Unity."

That is the fact of the matter. I hope my piece has shown that.

I find it quite puzzling that the myth of Articles 2 and 3 continues to be put forward by many but, I suppose when one reflects upon the matter, the fact such myths continue to be put forward are a testament to the excellent job done on rewording them in the first place.


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