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Leinster House, seat of the both Houses of the Oireachtas since 1922.
Buckingham Palace, official residence of the King, the third tier of the Free State Oireachtas.

From 1922 to 1937 the Oireachtas was the legislature, or parliament, of the Irish Free State. Until the final days of the Irish Free State it consisted of the King and two houses: Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann (also known as the 'Senate').

Like the modern Oireachtas, the Free State legislature was dominated by the powerful, directly elected Dáil. Unlike the modern organ, the Free State Oireachtas had authority to amend the constitution as it saw fit, without recourse to a referendum. During the Free State it was also the Oireachtas as a whole, rather than the Dáil, that had authority to commit the state to war, although this distinction was not significant in practice.

The Free State legislature was often referred to officially as the "Oireachtas of Saorstát Éireann" (Saorstát Éireann is the Irish for Irish Free State). The general enacting formula was "Be it enacted by the Oireachtas of Saorstát Éireann as follows:-", in the case of an act with a preamble this enacting formula was "Be it therefore enacted by the Oireachtas of Saorstát Éireann as follows:—".

Contents

1922–1936

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Composition

The Free State Dáil was directly elected by all citizens over the age of twenty-one. The election occurred under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. It was originally intended that the Senate would be directly elected as well. However, after the holding of only one direct election in 1925, the system was changed to one of indirect election. The Seanad had power to delay money bills for 21 days and any other bill for nine months.

Members of either house had to take an oath of fidelity to the King known as the "Oath of Allegiance" before taking their seats.

The King was the same individual who held the position of King of Great Britain, represented in the Free State by the Governor-General. Until 1927 he reigned in the Irish Free State as "King in Ireland". However from 1927 onwards he technically reigned in Free State on a separate throne as "King of Ireland".

The Oireachtas was dissolved by the King acting on the 'advice' of the Executive Council (cabinet).

Role

Until 1936, to become law a bill had to be approved by both houses of the Oireachtas, and then receive the Royal Assent from the Governor-General, acting on behalf of the King. In 1936, when the King ceased to be a part of the Oireachtas, the responsibility for signing bills into law became a formality exercised by the Ceann Comhairle. Whatever the procedure in practice the Dáil had power to ensure the enactment of almost any law it chose. Before its abolition the Seanad merely had power to delay money bills for 21 days and any other bill for nine months.

During the early years of the Irish Free State there existed a theoretical possibility that the Governor-General might veto an act of the Oireachtas, or "reserve it for the King's pleasure". In fact, after his appointment Governor-General Timothy Michael Healy was instructed by the British Government to withhold the Royal Assent from any bill that sought to abolish the Oath of Allegiance. However, after the passage of the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927 the British Government lost the right to formally advise the King in relation to the Free State and so the possibility of a veto royal became remote. In 1933, under Amendment No. 21 to the Free State constitution, provisions expressly permitting the Governor-General to veto or reserve bills were removed entirely.

As adopted, the Free State constitution, permitted the Oireachtas to amend the constitution by means of an ordinary law, but only during a transitional period of eight years. From 1930 it was envisaged that all amendments would be proposed by the Oireachtas but then be subject to approval in a referendum. However this transitional period was extended in 1929 so that during the entire period of the Irish Free State the Oireachtas had authority to adopt constitutional amendments without recourse to a referendum. The Oireachtas was theoretically prevented from adopting any law or constitutional amendment that violated the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Powers

Under the constitution the Oireachtas had exclusive authority to:

  • Legislate, including approving the budget.
  • Create subordinate legislatures.
  • Amend the constitution.
  • Permit the state to participate in a war.
  • Raise and control armed forces.

Limitations

  • In theory laws were invalid if they were repugnant to the constitution. In practice the power of the Oireachtas to amend the constitution prevented meaningful judicial review.
  • Laws or constitutional amendments were invalid if they violated the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
  • It could not retrospectively criminalise acts that were not illegal at the time they were committed.
  • Until the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the British Parliament retained the power, in theory, to legislate for the Irish Free State without its consent.
  • The Oireachtas could only legislate for the Free State, and not for Northern Ireland.

1936–1937

A series of constitutional amendments in 1936 substantially altered the functioning of the Oireachtas:

  • The King ceased to be a part of the Oireachtas, and the responsibility for signing bills into law became a formality exercised by the Ceann Comhairle.
  • The Seanad was abolished so the Free State Oireachtas consisted solely of the Dáil.
  • The original oath was abolished.
  • The requirement for laws and constitutional amendments to comply with the Anglo-Irish Treaty was removed.
  • The power to dissolve the legislature was exercised by the Ceann Comhairle (Chairman of Dáil Éireann) when instructed to do so by the President of the Executive Council (prime minister).

In 1937 the new Constitution of Ireland replaced the Free State Oireachtas with the modern Oireachtas Éireann.

See also


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