My column in The Kerryman. 7 August, 2013
How often can a government minister simultaneously save the country from a constitutional crisis and from the expenditure of 20 million euro (the approximate cost of a referendum), by simply going with the crowd? This grand feat of avoiding so much annoying hassle and expense was achieved by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore by just taking an oath.
Gilmore, as Tánaiste, sits on the Council of State and our Constitution, Article 31.4, demands members of the Council take an oath made “In the presence of All Mighty God.” Gilmore is an agnostic and so isn’t convinced there’s a god, be it the god of the Christians or some other extraordinary being. But he took the oath anyway and now we can continue to pretend that the Constitution is ‘our’ Constitution.
“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred…”
That is the first line of the Preamble to the Constitution. Many people assume our foundation document, the defining and regulating affirmation of our Nation, to be just a legal text. It isn’t. Our Constitution is more like a Christian prayer. A prayer, that with some modifications, has sufficed for most of our nation’s history.
Today, over a quarter of a million Irish people don’t have a religion. There are more of us than there are Anglicans, Presbyterians, Jews and Muslims. The only group bigger than the non-religious, are the Catholics. Yet our nation is defined by this National Prayer.
To be the President of this country, the democratically elected candidate, no matter his or her beliefs, is obliged by Article 12.8 of the Constitution to take an oath, “In the presence of Almighty God I…” To be a judge in Ireland, Article 34.5 insists the judge swears, “In the presence of Almighty God I…”
It’s a source of irritation more than anything, as it has always been unlikely anyone outside the mainstream would rise to such heady heights. There was a moment of excitement when some of us incorrectly assumed Michael D. Higgins was an atheist. He isn’t and thus his conscious was clear as he took the Presidential oath of office.
We non-religious people finally thought Gilmore offered a real opportunity to highlight the exclusionary and discriminatory nature of the Constitution. The President asking the advice of the Council of State on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, gave Gilmore an open goal: He could’ve refused to take the oath, explaining that it denies high-office to a huge section of Irish society.
He didn’t take that chance. He said the required words though I’d guess that, in his heart, he affirmed to do his duty with all the diligence and ability that he could bring to bear. To some this may smack of hypocrisy. I know that in his position I’d have thrown my toys out of the pram and be feeling pretty smug right now.
Would a referendum to remove references to God from the Constitution pass? I don’t know but I think spending €20 million so those who don’t believe in God, could say ‘our’ Constitution and mean it, would be money well spent.