Letter: Secular Ireland

Sir: While generous praise from our British neighbours is always welcome ("A dynamic nation that is a blueprint for modern Britain", 27 November), your leader-writer's comments about Mr De Valera and the Irish Constitution of 1937 are way off the mark.

That constitution is certainly not "inward-looking" or "obscurantist": indeed, the working papers of its drafting committee show that they borrowed hugely from Continental and American constitutional influences. The drafters were liberal, cultured jurists of outstanding quality who constructed an essentially secular document which made a few concessions to traditional Catholic and nationalist values. And, in stark contrast to even a modern- day United Kingdom with its established churches, the Catholic Church was hugely disappointed with the Constitution's meagre reference to its "special position", together with enforceable guarantees of non-endowment, non-discrimination and non-establishment. The reference to the "special position of the Catholic Church" was in any event deleted y a huge majority in a referendum in 1972.

And while Mr De Valera's attitude to women was decidedly old-fashioned, in one of his final speeches before the referendum on the constitution in July 1937, he famously predicted that, if adopted, it would lead, for example, to women becoming President and sitting on the Supreme Court, events which - happily - have subsequently come to pass.

In truth, the Constitution, despite its faults and imperfections, was a far-sighted, avant-garde document which provided for a clear separation of powers, extensive powers of judicial review of legislation and a bill of rights. Proof of the pudding here is that although Ireland was the first country to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (12 years before the UK), its record before that Court is among the very best. And, as Irish society changes and modernises, those objectionable features of Catholic nationalism with which our Unionist neighbours rightly take issue are being removed, one by one, in the fairest and most democratic way possible - by the referendum process which the constitution made compulsory.

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