Law and government in Ireland

The idea of law is that it embodies the core values of our society, creating rights and entitlements as well as duties and obligations. Nobody is above the law, no matter how wealthy or powerful they are.

The people of Ireland, in enacting “Bunreacht na hÉireann” or, in English “the Constitution of Ireland”, have chosen by popular vote how our state is to be constituted and governed, and also how our society is to be regulated. We have established, “Eire” or, in English, “Ireland” as our State and have characterised it as “a sovereign, independent, democratic state”. In doing so, we have opted to be ruled by law, not by those who enforce the law or wield government power.

In acknowledgment of this the Constitution of Ireland provides that “all powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial derive, under God, from the people”, and furthermore, that these powers of government are exercisable only by or on the authority of the organs of State established by the Constitution of Ireland.

We therefore have a tri-partite division of the powers of government, of which judicial power is one component. It may be helpful to identify the different powers of government just referred to in a little more detail.

The legislative power of government

Under the Constitution of Ireland the sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is vested in the Oireachtas (the National Parliament), which consists of the President of Ireland and two Houses, viz.: a House of Representatives called Dáil Éireann and a Senate called Seanad Éireann.

The executive power of government

The Constitution also provides for the appointment of a Government, which is responsible to Dáil Éireann, and states that “[t]he executive power of the State shall, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, be exercised by or on the authority of the Government”.

The judicial power of government

Judicial power is primarily concerned with the administration of justice.

However, not every power exercised by a judge necessarily amounts to the administration of justice. There are some jurisdictions and powers of the courts or judges the exercise of which is not the administration of justice.

It is important to appreciate that the judiciary is an arm of government and that its members are not mere public servants tasked with the resolution of disputes or the enforcement of laws, though that is clearly an important part of what they do. Judicial power is also available to be exercised (by the Superior Courts) as part of the checks and balances built into our system of government, such as the right and duty to examine the validity of any impugned enactment of the Oireachtas, and if it be found inconsistent with the Constitution, to condemn it in whole or in part; and the right and duty to interfere with the activities of the executive in order to protect or secure the constitutional rights of individual litigants where such rights have been or are being invaded by those activities or where activities of the executive threaten an invasion of those rights.