The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest academic honour in Ireland.

Read more about the RIA

Professor John Morison, MRIA: Constitutional Questions

01 May 2015

Professor John Morison MRIA is Director of Internationalisation at the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and founder of the innovative Juris Doctorate (JD) degree. Current research interests encompass constitutional law and theory as well as e-government and e-democracy. He is currently leading an interdisciplinary initiative funded by the Faculty looking at "Constitutional Futures".

How should we live together? Is there any ethical question more fundamental than this?

Is a constitution only about who does what in government or is it about what is to be done? Does a constitution provide the ground rules for deciding this or is it part of the answer itself? Is it the repository of fundamental values about how to live? What is the good life anyway? Is it about the preservation of life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or something more? What about preserving (or radically reordering) the distribution of property? Or ensuring that everyone has the same chances? Is it the job of the constitution to simply promise dignity, equality and freedom, or to deliver these values?

If the constitution is the place where the state undertakes “to promote the welfare of the whole people”, what does this actually mean in practical terms? And who pays for it? Should a constitution give us an entitlement to at least a basic minimum by way of a lifestyle? Or is it the job only of the political process to decide issues about the allocation of resources? What do we do if we feel that we cannot trust our politicians? Are there basic rules that should govern the operation of politics and are there fundamental values that should not be overridden? Are these “sacred and undeniable”? Or to be interpreted in line with modern conditions and within a “margin of appreciation”? Who decides on this in individual cases?

Who is entitled to any of this, and on what basis? Is everyone equal? Is the constitution about making it clear that no-one is better than you, and that in turn, you are better than no-one? Is a constitution about ensuring that you will always be an end in yourself and never simply a means to anyone else’s end? Or does it simply reinforce the existing distribution of power and wealth?

Are citizens to be given more than those who are not citizens? Is more to be expected from them, and what might that be? Can the constitution tell us how we should treat those from outside who now live with us?

What is the relationship between a constitution and a nation? Who is in the nation anyway? Should we talk about “we the people” or “we the peoples”? Should a constitution confirm a nationality or facilitate diversity? Is the constitution the place to declare aspirations for a national territory? Or to confirm support for the idea of consent? What about all our neighbours – on the island of Ireland and in Great Britain? Or in Europe? And beyond?

What is the relationship between a constitution and democracy? Is a constitution simply the rules by which the powerful govern the powerless? In what sense does a constitution belong to everyone, across past, present and future generations? Is it the place where we state common values? Are there any? Do they change across time? Should the people be asked about changes they may want? How often should this be done? Should the constitution address the past and its problems? How might this be done? What do we owe future generations?

Finally, if we can agree that the constitution is about respecting human rights, striving for social justice and building a fair and democratic Ireland – North and South – how do we make it happen in practice?

About This Series

This opinion series explores what ethics currently means to Irish researchers across a variety of disciplines and was led by the RIA Committee for Ethical, Political, Legal and Philosophical Studies and was a contribution to President Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in 2014/15.

The views and opinions expressed by authors are their own and do not reflect the position of the Academy, but are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse Academy Committee membership.

Ethics Initiative

The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative is the second in a series of public seminars and reflections that President Higgins is holding during his term of office. This series aims to explore, throughout all aspects of society, the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of living ethically.

Fan ar an eolas le nuachtlitir Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann

Sign up now