How does Ireland maintain constitutional stability when it is relatively easy to amend the Constitution?

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It is relatively easier to amend the Constitution in Ireland than in other countries.

To change the Irish Constitution, the amendment must:

  1. Be approved by both the lower and upper house of Parliament with a simple majority.

  2. Be approved by the people in a national referendum without any additional legal threshold (i.e. turnout, number of "yes" votes versus "no" votes, etc)

This has led to steady stream of amendments being proposed over years - many of which were adopted. In fact, there have been so many constitutional amendments that there is a Wikipedia page just to keep track of them.

Question:

  • How does Ireland maintain constitutional stability with such a low threshold to amend the Constitution? Aren't people worried of this mechanism being abused?

  • In the case of low turnout, will people accept the result? For instance, what if an amendment passes with just 5% turnout?

QuantumWalnut

Posted 2021-02-09T06:16:22.300

Reputation: 1 536

Question was closed 2021-02-09T14:48:19.643

6The second question can't be answered. Turnout has never been anything like that low. And you can't poll people on such a hypothetical. – James K – 2021-02-09T07:37:48.807

As to the "Aren't people worried?" part - probably not, as they can prevent this by simply participating in the referendum. And if something gets added that people are really unhappy with, removing it should be equally easy. – Hulk – 2021-02-09T07:42:27.363

5If Ireland is anything like Alabama, California, and Texas, they don't maintain constitutional stability. The idea in those states is that their constitutions should be living documents, but with changes over time decided by the people rather than by judges. Texas notoriously has on multiple occasions had two proposed amendments in the same election that directly contradicted one another, with both passing. – David Hammen – 2021-02-09T08:55:39.523

12The question pre-supposes that Constitution stasis, rather than stability, is desirable. There is nothing unstable about a constitution that can be changed. It just means that it can be kept up to date in a constantly changing world. – Jontia – 2021-02-09T09:22:36.737

"In the case of [5%] turnout, will people accept the result?" - I don't see why not. 95% of people presumably don't care about the result. It's the same with all votes - if you object to the result, well you should have voted! (and if you did, you're one of < 2.5% of eligible voters in the country who do) – colmde – 2021-02-09T10:28:51.383

Answers

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A good number of those amendments (about 25% of them) to the Irish constitution were over international treaties (as seen on the Wikipedia list), ranging from the various EU treaties (Ireland pretty much had an amendment/referendum for every one of those: accession, SEA, Nice, Lisbon, Amsterdam, the Fiscal Compact) to participation in the ICC and the Good Friday Agreement. (The line was apparently drawn at an IMF bailout, which was judged not to require such a popular consultation, only the Dail voted on it.) Why is the US/UK solution better where only the Senate/Parliament approves international treaties?

And why is it bad that Ireland had multiple amendments/referenda on abortion (refining the issue) rather than let a (supreme) court superlegislate the matter (US)?

You could argue that the Irish constitution was bit too detailed/prescriptive in some of regards, e.g. including judges' pay or divorce minutiae, which may have been better relegated to statutes. But that doesn't seem to be a general problem with other rights which are only broadly outlined in the Irish constitution and the courts seem to have broad review powers. Some analyses have said that the Irish constitution is itself a mix of US, UK and continental European constitutional elements (French 1848; German Weimar). The more detailed/prescriptive bits seem to be in the vein of this last tradition. According another analysis, it was mostly the Catholic-inspired elements that were too detailed in the initial issue and this was actually a similarity with the Polish constitution of the time. So, perhaps in this view, amendments involving popular consultation but not being overwhelmingly difficult to achieve was perhaps a good thing in retrospect.

For more on what a prescriptive [vs procedural] constitution entails, see "Two constitutional archetypes" in this IDEA constitutional primer. Basically, the former is much more value-oriented and more typically adopted by nation-states as opposed to citizen-states; the latter/procedural kind contains "few[er] substantive provisions (provisions settling particular policy issues)". There is little doubt that the Irish constitution had substantial prescriptive elements in this sense:

In Ireland, too, the Irish Constitution of 1937 explicitly places the family and Catholicism at the center of its constitutional identity, a fact that has been reaffirmed by the Irish Supreme Court.

So, at least part of those amendments are in this view an example of

a polity determined to accommodate significant social change [that] seeks to do so under the restraining sway of [a] prescriptive constitution.

Fizz

Posted 2021-02-09T06:16:22.300

Reputation: 76 605

I have to downvote this because, while there are aspects of this that form part of a good answer, there are parts that seem a bit debate-y (specifically the questions you are posing in your answer). – Joe C – 2021-02-09T13:04:13.583

2@JoeC: it's exactly because they are debate-y that makes this question not have clear answer. The question was asked from a certain POV. I'm trying to show that the question is equivalent to asking "should people be consulted by referenda on some (substantial) foreign treaties", "should people be consulted by referenda on matters stemming from religious morality/ethics: abortion, marriage etc." Or should some other state organ decide? There's no clear right/wrong answer to these, I think. – Fizz – 2021-02-09T13:10:01.203