This is the second of a (very!) occasional series of posts providing background notes for the Basic Law of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland. In this post we will walk through the preface, which introduces some basic principles and sets out a declaration of intent.
We, the people of Northern Ireland, believe:
- that no form of government is legitimate without the consent of the governed
- that the state exists solely to serve the needs of its people, and has no rights or powers other than those granted to it by its people
- that all persons are equal before the law
- that the separation of Church, Nation and State is essential to the creation of a shared society of equals
- that it is the duty of public representatives to exercise their responsibilities in the best interests of all the people, without regard to their political, religious or national allegiance
- that all persons have the civic duty to contribute to the process of their own governance, and must be given the means and opportunity to do so in an informed and meaningful way
- that all forms of government of Northern Ireland to date have fallen short of these ideals
- that the current system of government is hostile to the development of a just society
- that the people are increasingly alienated from their government
- that fundamental change is required, and that change must be brought about from within by the people themselves
we therefore declare the establishment of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland (“the Commonwealth”), as follows:
This preface, like the rest of the Basic Law but unlike many similar documents, is intentionally devoid of flowery language, appeals to mythical pasts or evocations of heroic struggle. The Basic Law is an aspirational document but a hard headed one. It lays out in no uncertain terms what a functioning state should look like, and how far we still need to go. It is not a call to arms, but an exhortation to roll up sleeves.
…the consent of the governed…
This is basic philosophy of government, but bears repeating. Ad nauseam if that’s what it takes.
…the state…has no rights or powers other than those granted to it by its people
States do have rights, but these are subordinate to the rights of natural persons. We must never lose sight of the principle that states are a means to an end, and that end is the improvement of people’s lives. If the state is not bent to that purpose then the state must yield.
…the separation of Church, Nation and State…
It has long been understood that the separation of Church and State is fundamental to creating a society that treats all its citizens equally. What is less commonly understood, but which is vital in a contested space such as Northern Ireland, is the separation of Nation and State. We cannot simply declare all residents members of the same nation when we cannot agree amongst ourselves what nation that is to be. And yet the business of government must continue in the absence of a common nationhood.
Separation of Nation and State is the single most essential prerequisite for a functional NI.
…the best interests of all the people, without regard to their political, religious or national allegiance…
One of the most common and fundamental mistakes that politicians are tempted to make is that they are there to further the interests of a particular side. It does not matter how sides are chosen, only that public representatives should not be beholden to them. Obviously, there will be times when one or other group is being treated unjustly and that standing up for this particular group is the right thing to do. But politicians should be standing up against injustice no matter which side has been wronged.
…all forms of government of Northern Ireland to date have fallen short…
We cannot move forward unless we recognise past failure. This is not to cast blame, but to remind ourselves that our task remains unfinished.
…fundamental change…must be brought about from within…
Dublin or London will not save Northern Ireland from itself. They can help or hinder the process as they see fit, but nothing will change if the people of NI themselves do not take responsibility for that change.
…the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland…
The name of the jurisdiction is carefully chosen, as is the use of the term “jurisdiction” throughout the document. The constitutional status of NI has long been a point of contention, and the use of descriptors such as “state”, “statelet”, “province”, and “country” are seen as prejudicial by one or other side. By contrast, it cannot be credibly disputed that NI forms a separate legal jurisdiction.
The jurisdiction of Northern Ireland already exists, but in the Basic Law we declare a new constitutional entity to govern that jurisdiction, and to draw a line under its past. Again, we seek to find an uncontroversial terminology that does not prejudice NI’s future constitutional status. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a republican state, while the Commonwealth of Australia is a monarchy. Massachusetts is not sovereign, but Australia is. The use of “Commonwealth” cannot therefore be said to favour any particular constitutional aspiration.