I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Where we are

Thomas Murray
New Beginnings: Constitutionalism and Democracy in Modern Ireland, by Bill Kissane, UCD Press, 200 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-1906359515. We are where we are, apparently. Post-crisis, a cottage industry has sprung up in Ireland looking at where we are, how we got here and what is to be done. Of the resulting analyses, few have examined the state’s constitution or legal system. This is surprising. In all manner of political contestations in Ireland, from rent restrictions to abortion rights, from European treaty referendums to the proposed abolition of the Seanad, all players on the stage know that the constitution, much like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is hovering somewhere in the wings. This absence of inquiry owes something to the fact that political studies of the Irish constitution occupy a remarkably small shelf space. In recent years, we have witnessed two legal-historical reconstructions of the constitution-making process, Dermot Keogh and Andrew McCarthy’s The Making of the Irish Constitution, 1937 and Gerard Hogan’s Origins of the Irish Constitution: 1928-41, but little by way of a holistic analysis, assessing the wider power relations at stake in constitutional development or, indeed, its relationship to and significance for our contemporary situation. Enter Bill Kissane’s New Beginnings. In this ambitious book, Kissane sets out to analyse constitutionalism and democracy in Ireland from Home Rule to the Good Friday Agreement through the detailed examination of “turning points” when constitutional change was discussed, attempted or implemented. Each of the five central chapters focuses on a specific turning point: the making of the 1919, 1922, and 1937 constitutions, debates on constitutional change since 1969, and the 1998 Belfast peace agreement. Would-be constitution-makers, he argues, faced a number of recurring, foundational decisions centring on the nature of an essentially contested concept, sovereignty. The basic sovereignty problem involved choosing between popular sovereignty as popular ownership of the new state and a realpolitik of adhering to inherited structures of government, specifically the Westminster model of executive and party dominance. The latter triumphed: Irish constitutionalism had minimal popular or direct democratic involvement. Instead, representative party politics was to exercise a decisive influence over each turning point in the constitution’s history. Irish politicians, Kissane argues, have typically viewed constitution-making not as an opportunity for “genuine democratic transformation” but rather as a means of making democracy more manageable. Meanwhile, Kissane suggests, a majority of people in Ireland proved willing to be managed and accepted the constitution. This was so for two…

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