Róisín Shortall to seek referendum to end presidential oath to ‘almighty God’

Social Democrats co-leader to table Bill on the matter after European ruling

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall is to table a Bill seeking a referendum to remove the presidential oath to “almighty God” from the Constitution after European human rights judges dismissed her challenge to the oath.

Ms Shortall’s move raises a question for the Government as to whether it would seek to block her referendum proposal. There was no comment from a Government spokesman when asked about the matter.

Is it understood that the Coalition has no plan to table a Bill of its own on the question.

A seven-judge chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday that Ms Shortall’s challenge to the presidential oath was inadmissible.


The Government had challenged the status of Ms Shortall and four co-litigants – Sinn Féin TD John Brady, Senator David Norris, former Barnardos chief Fergus Finlay and Prof David McConnell of Trinity College Dublin – to take the action and the merits of their argument.

The court on Thursday said the litigants were not personally victimised by the need to take a religious oath if elected president. The five had argued the requirement to swear oaths “to which they have a conscientious objection” was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On the same grounds the court also dismissed their challenge to the oath taken by members of the Council of State, which advises the President.

Ms Shortall insisted the ruling was not the end of the matter and that she would seek to address the issue by other means.

“I will be bringing forward a Bill proposing a referendum to amend the Constitution, to remove the requirement to make a religious oath when elected president or appointed to the Council of State.”

The court appeared to have little sympathy for the Government’s argument that the clauses were not religious per se but manifestations for political and cultural heritage, she said.

‘Margin of discretion’

Although the judges said states enjoy a wide margin of discretion in questions concerning the relationship between them and religion, they also said that went hand in hand with European supervision.

“The reference by a state to a tradition could not relieve it of its obligation to respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention,” the court said.

Ms Shortall said she was surprised and disappointed at the State’s “full-throated defence” of the case.

“In a modern republic, it is anathema that those elected to one of the highest political offices in the land, that of president, are required to swear an oath to ‘almighty God’,” she said, adding that such oaths “are incompatible with freedom of conscience”.

Atheist Ireland said it would continue to press for the removal of religious oaths from the Constitution, arguing that they still contravene human rights law.

In the group’s assessment, the ruling meant that a legal challenge to the oaths would probably require someone elected president or invited on to the Council of State to “refuse to swear the religious oath” and then take a case to the European court.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times