Chile functioned under its 1925 Constitution until its suspension following the 1973 Pinochet Coup. In 1980 a new Constitution was promulgated by the Dictatorship which called for the Ruling Junta to select a candidate (which was, of course, Pinochet) for a plebiscite to be held in 1988. The no vote won the plebiscite and this meant Presidential and Parliamentary elections would be in December 1989. In the interim there were negotiations between the Dictatorship and opposition groups to agree the structure of the new Government and these were approved in a plebiscite on 30 July 1989. Importantly the Dictatorship succeeded in inserting a provision that laws governing the armed forces were governed by an organic constitutional law making it very difficult to amend such a law.

There have been mostly minor amendments to the 1989 Constitution in the interim but due to popular protects the Government of Sebastien Pinera agreed to a Referendum to replace the Military Era Constitution which took place in October 2020. A large majority (78%) voted in favour of replacing the existing Constitution to be drawn up by a body of 155 people to be elected by popular vote in April 2021. That body is to put the draft new Constitution for approval by a second Referendum in 2022.

The Republic of Ireland functions under its 1937 Constitution as amended by Referenda from time to time.  It could be argued that the Republic needs a new Constitution to reform many of the issues that are holding the country back. A new Constitution could clear out many of the obstacles to growth and social equity by reforming the electoral system, property rights, the role of the Courts in insurance compensation etc. This would allow the country to get into true problem solving mode rather then the present  rinky dink ‘kick the can down the road’  mode. However, in normal circumstances the prospects for a Referendum on a new Constitution are next to nil.

However, with a vote on a United Ireland, where a new Constitution would be highly desirable if not inevitable, looming over the horizon there is an excellent opportunity to take a leaf out of the Chilean book and inaugurate the process with a two stage Referendum. The first Referendum would be to agree to the principle of writing a new Constitution. The electorate would then vote for a body of individuals to draft the Constitution and then the second Referendum would vote to approve it.

Not all of these votes can take place before a United Ireland has been agreed but that is no reason not to start the process now. If we wait and a United Ireland just happens then we will end up tacking the six counties onto the twenty six in a botched operation which would almost certainly guarantee the worst possible outcome.

I suggest that the vote to draw up a new Constitution take place in the Republic as soon as possible. The vote to elect the drafters could also take place in the Republic with a voluntary poll in the North (which would probably be only attended by one side there). This body could then get to work and if and when a United Ireland is agreed there will be a Constitutional process in place and the North could elect its formal (rather than voluntary) members. This body would then be given a timetable to finish its drafting and submit the new Constitution to a thirty two county Referendum.      

It could be argued that all of this could wait until a United Ireland has been approved by a vote in the North which would be any number of years away. The first objection to waiting is that one never knows when this will occur. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was sudden and unexpected. It is not clear what time factors would operate after a Referendum in the North. Britain might just announce a date and leave. The other objection is that if we wait until after a Referendum in the North the Constitutional process will almost certainly be exclusively focused on special arrangements for the North and a once in a lifetime opportunity will be lost for more general Constitutional reforms which, incidentally, are a sina qua non for the Republic being able to afford Unification.

Latin Report is not legally responsible for any decisions taken based on the views offered here or in our Reports.

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