Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Burke family values are reflected in Irish Constitution

By invoking our Constitution, Enoch Burke reminds us that it is deep-fried in divinity. Let’s drop God from Bunreacht na hÉireann

The antics of the Burke family make it all too easy to dismiss them as mere eccentrics. All that mad religiosity – where does it come from?

Well, one place to look for an answer is the Constitution. If you read it, you’ll find that, by its standards, the Burkes are a lot less weird than they seem.

What the Burkes believe is what, according to our basic law, we’re all supposed to believe. The doctrine that religious belief trumps everything else is encoded in the DNA of the State.

Enoch Burke, in his endless legal battles, has consistently argued that his duty to obey God overrides his duty to obey the courts. If this is an absurd proposition, it was not off the ground he licked it.


The Government is proposing to hold a referendum to replace the Constitution’s clause in which the contribution to society of “woman” is defined by her domestic “duties”. This is a long overdue attempt to get the social ideology of the 1930s out of the Constitution. But it avoids the two-ton supreme being in the room: God.

The 1937 Constitution is deep-fried in divinity. It is not, moreover, just any deity that rules over it. It is a very specifically Christian Almighty.

The prototype for most written constitutions is the American one – and it does not mention God at all. (The Christian right in the US, unable to accept that the revered Founding Fathers could have been so neglectful, seizes in desperation on the fact that they dated the document, “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven”, as an alleged acknowledgment of the supremacy of Jesus.)

Subsequently, though, God did get a nod in the preambles to many constitutions. Canada is “founded upon principles that recognise the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. Australia’s founding document has it “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. Germany’s basic law declares its citizens “Conscious of their responsibility before God and man…”

But what we’ve got in Ireland is a whole different thurible of incense. The Constitution doesn’t just give God the usual shoutout. It is stuffed with a specifically Christian – and implicitly Catholic – theology.

It does not start with a proud “we the people” but with the people prostrate before the big boss in the sky: “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, We, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial…”

This is not the vague genuflection towards the divine we find in other constitutions. It is an explicit subjection of popular sovereignty to Christian doctrine, inflected, through that reference to centuries of trial, towards Catholicism. It defines the nation as a community of believers in the divinity of Christ and the triple nature of the godhead.

There’s more. Article 6, apparently fearful that this subjection of popular sovereignty to divine authority is not already explicit enough, tells us that: “All powers of Government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people.”

Article 44 begins: “The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence and shall respect and honour religion.”

It might be argued that all of this is just ritual craw-thumping and that it doesn’t really matter because the Constitution also has other clauses that guarantee freedom of religion. But the enshrining of piety has real force.

Firstly, God, not content with all the homage, gets into the process of senior State appointments. The Constitution invokes “Almighty God” in oaths to be sworn by the President, the members of the Council of State and (crucially) the judiciary.

In fact, this divinity is so good the oath taken by judges names him twice, starting with “In the presence of Almighty God” and ending with an actual prayer: “May God direct and sustain me.”

This means that it is not possible for an honest non-believer to become a judge. If you do not have faith in the divine presence, you have to either lie or decline to serve. It is rather ironic that the judges who take evidence under oath have to start their judicial careers with an oath they may not believe in.

Secondly, the explicitly Christian character of the Constitution means that, unlike in other countries, our compulsorily Christian judges can make important rulings on an explicitly religious basis. Forty years ago this month, the Supreme Court upheld the laws against male homosexual sex on the ground that “homosexuality has always been condemned in Christian teaching” and because of “the Christian nature of our State”.

Remind me again how that differs from Burke’s contention that “homosexual conduct has been and always will be condemned by God”?

In his arguments before the courts, Burke has claimed that he has the Constitution on his side. He has also accused the judges who have ruled in his cases of “not adhering to the oath of office they had taken before God”.

And here’s the problem: he’s not as wrong as, in a secular democracy, he ought to be.

The undeniable fact is that the Constitution does indeed say what Burke believes: that “all actions both of men and States must be referred” first and foremost to “our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ”. And all the judges who have heard his cases have indeed sworn oaths that they will take their direction from (presumably the same) God.

Burke is not inventing the idea that God (which is to say whatever someone decides to claim as the divine will) is superior to the laws made by the Irish republic. He’s just acting out a script written by Éamon de Valera and John Charles McQuaid in the 1930s. Burke is the fanatical genie let out of the bottle of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

This is why, in all the tedious narcissism of his legal campaign, Burke might after all be doing some good. He has exposed the raw nerve that runs through our basic law: the utterly anomalous persistence of religious doctrine in the Constitution of a secular republic and a multi-faith society.

This stuff should have no place in the legal and political make-up of 21st century Ireland. It is a throwback to the fusion of Catholicism and nationalism that did such harm to both Church and State.

Unlike Burke, I can’t speak for God. But I suspect that She has better things to be doing than being continually dragged into the operation of Irish law. Being excised from the Constitution would surely come as a divine relief.