Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland

From Academic Kids

Article 2 and Article 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, were adopted with the constitution as a whole in 1937, but completely revised by means of the Nineteenth Amendment which took full effect in 1999. As amended they grant the right to be "part of the Irish Nation" to all of those born on the island of Ireland and express a desire for the peaceful political unification of the island subject to the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Prior to 1999, Articles 2 and 3 made the claim (which was offensive to unionists that the whole island formed one "national territory".


1937–1999 version

Full text

Article 2

The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.

Article 3

Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the parliament and government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory, the laws enacted by the parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstat Eireann1 and the like extra-territorial effect.


The drafters of Bunreacht na hÉireann considered the partition of Ireland under the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty illegitimate. They desired the new constitution to proclaim the existence of a single 'Irish nation', and the theoretical right of the state to encompass the whole island, while for reasons of pragmatism recognising the de facto reality of partition. What emerged in 1937 was a delicately worded legal balancing act.

The Bunreacht refers to two separate entities: a nation, encompassing the whole island of Ireland, and a state, extending, for the time being, only to the twenty-six counties of the 'South'. In its 1937 form, Article 2 described the island of Ireland as the "national territory". Article 3, however, stated that the laws of the southern state would apply only to the South. The purpose of Article 3 was to clarify that Article 2 was intended largely as a kind of declaration, rather than as a provision that would have actual force of law.


Until their amendment in 1999 Articles 2 and 3 were the subject of some controversy, particularly among Unionists in Northern Ireland. To Northern Ireland Unionists the articles were a hostile claim upon "their" territory, and a declaration that they might be coerced into a united Ireland without their consent. Furthermore, they claimed, the articles constituted an extra-territorial claim to a part of a "foreign" nation and were therefore in violation of international law.

For many decades the correct interpretation of the articles also caused some controversy among Irish nationalists. Some saw the constitution as placing an enforceable legal obligation on the government of the Republic to use its influence to actively seek the unification of the island. Invoking Article 2, some Northern Ireland nationalists elected to the UK parliament requested, but were denied, the right to be recognised in the southern parliament (the Oireachtas) as TDs (MPs). Prior to 1999, however, the Republic of Ireland's Supreme Court affirmed in consistent rulings that Article 2 created no rights or obligations that were actually enforceable in a court of law.

Post-1999 version

The Republic of Ireland was bound by the terms of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement to submit Articles 2 and 3 to amendment by referendum. To this end the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution was adopted in June of the same year. The new wording describes the Irish nation as a community of individuals with a common identity rather than as a territory, and is intended to reassure Unionists that a united Ireland will not come about without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

Full text (1999–present)

Article 2

It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

Article 3

1. It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament2 that existed immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution.
2. Institutions with executive powers and functions that are shared between those jurisdictions may be established by their respective responsible authorities for stated purposes and may exercise powers and functions in respect of all or any part of the island.

Article 2

As amended, Article 2 provides that everyone born on the island of Ireland has the right to be a part of the Irish nation. The intention is partly to allow the people of Northern Ireland, if they wish, to feel included in the 'nation' without making what might be perceived as an extra-territorial claim. This is a reflection of the provision in the Belfast Agreement recognising

the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.

The new wording of Article 2 also had the legal effect of granting to everyone born on the island the right to citizenship of the Republic. However this right has since been qualified by the Twenty-seventh Amendment. Adopted in 2004, this amendment did not alter the wording of Articles 2 and 3 but nonetheless limited the constitutional right to citizenship to those born on the island to at least one Irish parent. Article 2 further recognises the "specially affinity" between the people of Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

Article 3

As amended, Article 3, Section 1 expresses the "firm will" of the Irish nation to create a united Ireland. It stresses, however, that a united Ireland should respect the distinct cultural identity of northern Protestants and that it should only come about with the separate "democratically expressed" consent of the peoples of both parts of the island. Under the Good Friday Agreement the people of Northern Ireland's "democratically expressed" consent must be secured in a referendum. Section 2 allows the Republic of Ireland to participate in the cross-border 'implementation' bodies established under the Agreement.

Modern controversy

Of the two main Unionist parties in Northern Ireland the amended versions of Articles 2 and 3 have been accepted by the Ulster Unionist Party but rejected by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as not representing an improvement on their predecessors. The DUP has recently become the largest political party in Ulster Unionism.

By granting an unqualified right to citizenship to all of those born on the island of Ireland the new articles have also caused further controversy in Republic. In the last few years, the Irish Government has accused asylum seeker and/or illegal immigrant mothers of deliberately presenting themselves at hospitals in the Republic in the late stages of pregnancy in order to secure citizenship for their children.

In January 2003 the Supreme Court added to this controversy by ruling that it was constitutional for the Government to deport the parents of children who were Irish citizens. In May 2004 the European Court of Justice ruled that a non-native mother whose child was born in Northern Ireland, had the right to live with her child in the UK. The implications are that the child, as an Irish citizen, has the right to reside anywhere in the EU with the protection of their mother.

The Twenty-seventh Amendment was approved by referendum on 11 June 2004, voting taking place concurrently with European elections and local elections, and became law on 24th June. It inserted a new section in Article 9 of the constitution stating that "notwithstanding any other provision of [the] Constitution" no-one would be automatically entitled to Irish citizenship unless they had at least one parent who was (or was entitled to be) an Irish citizen.


  1. Saorstát Éireann is the Irish language translation of the Irish Free State: the name of the independent Irish state prior to 1937.
  2. i.e. the parliament of the Irish Free State (1922–1937). The Belfast Agreement does not refer to the part of Ireland that is not Northern Ireland by name.

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