Do the British celebrate the Fourth of July? It’s a question Americans sometimes ask. The Irish might also ask: “Do the British celebrate the Easter Rising?” Of course the answer is no. But there is a lot that we could celebrate on the anniversary of these events which occurred, respectively, 240 and 100 years ago this year.
The shots fired in Concord in 1776 were heard around the world. So too were the shots fired in Dublin in 1916. In both cases British men fired on other British men. In both cases the complaint of the rebels was that they were not being treated equally.
The rights which the British were proud to enjoy in Britain were liberty (including self-determination), equality and the rule of law. But people had to live in Britain to enjoy all the rights enjoyed by the English, Welsh and Scots.
The American Revolution was not the end of empire; it was a new beginning. After 1776 the British Empire went from strength to strength in Asia, Africa, Australasia and Canada. And the American settlers, up till then confined to the east coast, soon extended their settlements to the Pacific Ocean.
It was the Easter Rising that marked the beginning of the end of European imperialism. Unlike the American settlers, the Irish who obtained independence in 1922 were an indigenous people.
What is more important is the constitution and the human rights that the Irish fought for, and obtained, under the Treaty of 1922. “All powers of government and all authority, legislative, executive, and judicial, in Ireland are derived from the people of Ireland,” read Article 2. “Every person, without distinction of sex, domiciled in” the new Irish state was to enjoy a series of rights: personal liberty, the inviolability of the home, freedom of conscience, religion, expression and opinion, assembly and association. There was to be no retrospective legislation. These are the most basic rights necessary for a people to enjoy democracy.
Like the Americans, the Irish rejected the model of the sovereign British King in Parliament. Like the Americans, they had suffered under parliaments that had not governed for the good of all the people equally. Under their constitution the courts decide whether laws are valid, in conformity with the provisions of the constitution.
Even this was not democratic enough for most Irish people. In 1937 they adopted a new constitution. From then on, proposals for law reform that were considered to be of national importance were required to be submitted to a referendum. For the first time in a human rights instrument anywhere in the world, human dignity and the pursuit of the common good were invoked as the reason and purpose of the constitution: “to promote the common good, with due observance of prudence, justice and charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured”.
Human dignity has since been recognised as a basic principle throughout the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 starts with the declaration that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
The Irish constitution now guarantees the “life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen” and more. It derived this concept of human dignity from the 19th-century papal encyclicals on Catholic social teaching. “Respect in every man his dignity as a person,” wrote Leo XIII.
The 1937 constitution added a section headed “Principles of Social Policy”. The first two of these required that the state “strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life”, and in particular “to secure that the citizens (all of whom, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood) may through their occupations find the means of making reasonable provision for their domestic needs”. Controversially, in 1937 the Irish also decided to become a republic.
Today these principles are widely considered basic rights in a democratic society. The Scottish nationalists have fired no guns; there was a referendum. While we have no codified constitution, it has become a constitutional convention in Britain that questions considered to be of national importance are now submitted to a referendum. The Australians are considering becoming a republic.
Regardless of whether people agree with that, no one questions the right of the people of Australia to decide whether to depose their monarch.
For centuries British governments, with our supposedly omnipotent Parliament, claimed that Catholics posed the threat of absolutism. But given their independence, the Catholic Irish adopted democratic constitutions of which the 17th-century Puritan Levellers might have been proud. Who noticed that?
Sir Michael Tugendhat is a retired High Court judge
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