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23rd December 2020

Book in Focus: A Discourse Perspective on Bunreacht na hÉireann: A Sound Constitution?

In this latest edition of our 'Book in Focus' blog series, Professor Davide Mazzi guides us through his recently-published study on the Constitution of Ireland, A Discourse Perspective on Bunreacht na hÉireann: A Sound Constitution?

A Discourse Perspective on Bunreacht na hÉireann

By Davide Mazzi

By reason of their significance for the countries where they are in force, constitutions may be approached from various perspectives, from political science to legal theory. In this book, a different angle is taken on the matter. As its object of study, the Constitution of Ireland is investigated from a discourse perspective. To begin with, its language is analysed. Secondly, its impact on the Irish public sphere is assessed at different levels. In particular, the volume fields four research questions: (1) Why has the Constitution been such a key document for the Republic?; (2) What has the impact of the Constitution been on Irish public discourse at both a popular and a specialised level?; and, more specifically, (3) How was the Constitution represented and ‘argued’ by the Irish press upon its enactment?; (4) How has it entered the argumentation of Irish judges across the decades, as they have been required to pronounce on the compatibility of proposed legislation with its norms?

The first of these questions is addressed in the opening chapter. The overview of scholarly literature offered there allows to set the Bunreacht (the Constitution) against its own historical background and examine a number of distinctive aspects of the document. In particular, the book’s coverage of the contentious provisions on sovereignty and fundamental (as well as unenumerated) rights sheds light on the Constitution as a thoroughly debated charter over the years in which it has been in force. Moreover, controversy over canons of constitutional interpretation, the conceptualisation of women, the influence of Roman Catholicism, and even language issues arising from the bilingual version of the text provides evidence that the Bunreacht has marked the stages through which the country has developed since Independence. This means that, as with all fundamental laws, the Irish Constitution was meant to stay and regulate politics and society well beyond the decade when it was drafted. However, the document has had to be amended, or at least reinterpreted, by taking stock of the dramatic changes undergone by the Republic over the last forty years.

A cropped scan of Bunreacht na hÉireann/Constitution of Ireland as published by the State. Image taken from Wikipedia Commons.

In the analytical chapters of the book, the text of Bunreacht na hÉireann is treated as a corpus in its own right, and, as such, is interrogated in an attempt to establish what regular patterns of language use emerge from it as a small database. First of all, a preliminary overview of corpus findings is presented, and a list of the most frequent lexical fields along with the related word forms and clusters is provided. Subsequently, the main functions performed by the selected word forms in their respective contexts are described. As is highlighted by the examples, these range from legislative empowerment to a definition of the duties and prerogatives of the key institutional stakeholders acting as the main figures in the polity envisaged by Ireland’s constitutional charter.

In addition, a comparative analysis is conducted of the 1937 issues of two national newspapers (Irish Independent and Irish Press). The aim here is to document how they reacted to the enactment of the Bunreacht, how they presented it to their respective readerships, and how they ‘argued’ different visions of it by often entertaining a kind of critical discussion with each other, not least in relation to specific issues such as women’s status in the Constitution. The focus in this section is therefore on the use of rhetorical resources through which Irish Independent and Irish Press described, and in many respects constructed, the Constitution of Ireland.

First and foremost, the editorial stance of the two newspapers is reviewed. On the one hand, the Independent voices its scepticism over both the substance of the Bunreacht (for example, the powers of the new President) and the method chosen to adopt it, namely a plebiscite in favour of the Constitution by a very narrow margin. On the other hand, due to its capacity as a sounding board for Fianna Fáil, the Irish Press’s adherence to the constitutional project envisaged by de Valera is beyond question.

What is noteworthy is that the Press’s propaganda machine, as it were, appears to work through a more extensive repertoire of rhetorical devices. Not only, therefore, do editorials extol the virtues of the Constitution, but the newspaper’s praise of the charter also includes a somewhat more biased coverage of Constitution Day, as many people celebrated the Bunreacht coming into force. Furthermore, strong emphasis is laid on the Catholic Church’s alignment with the principles behind the Constitution in the form of both statements from members of the church hierarchy and favourable comments from Catholic periodicals both at home and abroad. Finally, the Press corroborates its views by favourably comparing the new Constitution with the old.

A sketch of the Irish Parliament building, 1896.

While the fifth chapter investigates the relationship between the Constitution and Irish society at the level of public discourse represented by the press, Chapter 6 moves on to the impact of constitutional norms at a higher level, namely by looking at Bunreacht na hÉireann as the yardstick by which to assess the acceptability of Acts of the Oireachtas. In particular, the book examines the argumentative discourse in the fifteen judgments delivered by the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution. It therefore assesses whether there is a degree of consistency in the argumentative strategy chosen by Irish Justices as they decide on the compatibility of Acts with the letter of the country’s fundamental law. As is shown by corpus data, pragmatic argumentation lies at the heart of the Supreme Court’s discourse, and its variants, as well as the patterns of complex argumentation in which these are embedded, are outlined.

The variants of pragmatic argumentation reconstructed through the analysis are schematised and illustrated in this book by referring to well-known judgments included in the corpus (for example, the Court’s ruling on The Emergency Powers Bill, 1976). Furthermore, the desirability or undesirability of the effects of a decision, based on which the Court pronounced for or against bills’ constitutionality, is shown to have been examined by Justices in terms of compatibility with the primary goals intended by the Constitution’s drafters to be of paramount importance. In the analysis, the articulation of pragmatic argumentation is therefore evaluated in response to the main critical questions triggering the argumentation in relation to the goals and values the Court considers to be crucial to the fulfilment of its functions.

Davide Mazzi is Associate Professor of English at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy. His research interests concentrate on legal and news discourse, which he has explored mainly in an Irish context. His recent publications include: “By partially renouncing their sovereignty...”: On the discourse function(s) of lexical bundles in EU-related Irish judicial discourse, in Phraseology in Legal and Institutional Settings (2017); “Phraseology, argumentation and identity in Supreme Court of Ireland’s judgments on language policy” in Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice (2018); and Views of Place, Views of Irishness. Representing the Gaeltacht in the Irish Press, 1895-1905 (2019).

A Discourse Perspective on Bunreacht na hÉireann: A Sound Constitution? is available now.