Political Systems in Ireland and Britain Essay

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The United Kingdom and Ireland have both enjoyed geographic separation from the continent of Europe, enabling both to develop unique political cultures and institutions. Ireland has been even more removed from the fray, having never been part of the Roman Empire, and systematically resistant to the same invasions that affected England throughout much of their respective histories. However, the proximity between Ireland and England—and later the United Kingdom—has caused the two countries to be “intertwined politically, economically, and culturally for over 800 years,” (The Republic and Politics of the Republic of Ireland 5). British hegemony has generally meant that Irish identity has been largely oppositional in nature. Divergent trends have emerged in the political cultures and institutions of the United Kingdom and Ireland, especially with regards to the relatively power of the Church. Ireland’s political structures, institutions, and cultures have been inevitably influenced by the British system, but the Catholic Church has also penetrated the political sphere in Ireland to a great degree. As a result, the Irish political system exhibits some marked peculiarities that differentiate it from its British counterpart and its counterparts in Europe too. The Irish and British systems are generally similar in terms of being modern democracies, but their procedural politics are totally different, their respective political institutions are different, and finally, their political cultures also differ from one another.



By the early 20th century, Ireland had fully adapted most British parliamentary democratic institutions, albeit with important tweaks. One tweak has been the evolution of the Irish constitution. The current Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann/The 1937 Constitution of Eire) dates from 1937. In contrast, the United Kingdom has actually never had a singular document it would call a Constitution. Instead of a formal Constitution outlining the systems, branches, forms, functions, and limitations of government, Britain relies on its system of common law, and the traditions that have long been embedded in the society. While the British system seems tenuous, even dangerous, its flexibility and its pragmatism have proven it effective for nearly a thousand years (O’Neil). The British government and its political culture are not bereft of formal documents, either. Tracing its heritage to groundbreaking documents like the Magna Carta of 1215 Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, the British parliamentary system remains a model of liberal democracy around the world.



Also referred to as the Westminster system, the British form of government had some influence on Irish political culture, procedures, and institutions. The most important procedural differences between the Irish and the British systems include the role of judicial review, the proportional representation-single transferrable vote (PR-STV) system, and the use of the public referendum. Like the United States, Ireland embraces a system of judicial review, whereby the independent judiciary may strike down a law passed by the legislative body. The United Kingdom has no policy or procedure for judicial review.

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In fact, parliament can effectively pass any law it likes unchallenged. Parliament has a much stronger role in government than it does in Ireland. While the British system seems like it could encourage tyranny and abuses of power, the strong and entrenched political culture builds in safeguards to protect against gross injustices. Until recently, the most notable but ironic safeguard preventing unconstitutional or unjust legislation from being passed would have been the House of Lords (O’Neil). Yet Britain has recently changed its political system to welcome some degree of judicial review. As of 2009, the United Kingdom has a Supreme Court, currently peopled by members of the House of Lords but thereafter via appointment. Its powers are weak, limited, and rarely exercised, unlike the Irish court system. The Irish judiciary’s power, role, and purpose in government is similar to the United States Supreme Court in that it provides a formal check on the power of the legislative and executive branches of government. Both Ireland and the United Kingdom favor a common law method of judicial proceedings, rather than relying on statute-based law.



Structurally, Irish and British governments share some elements in common but with key distinctions. The House of Lords is a relic of the past, its members undemocratically selected, representing the aristocracy or the elite and serving for life. Some members of the House of Lords, the Life Peers, are appointed by the Prime Minister. Others are selected on the basis of their legal expertise, which is why the House of Lords had traditionally served the function of judicial review in the absence of a formal Supreme Court. Since the formation of the British Supreme Court in 2009, though, the judicial review tradition in the House of Lords has been usurped. Finally, a large number of members of the House of Lords were seated based on heredity alone. Ireland has no such tradition, but the Irish senate, the Seanad is the closest comparison. The Seanad is, like the House of Lords, not a democratically elected body. Its members are appointed by what can be considered the elite or even special interest groups. Although heredity does not factor into the Irish Seanad as it does with the House of Lords, Seanad members are not directly elected by voters but are appointed or elected via an electoral college. As with the House of Lords, the Seanad positions are divided between different types or methods of appointment. Some are directly elected by Trinity College graduates, underscoring the elitist elements in Irish society (The Republic and Politics of the Republic of….....

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Works Cited

Patrick H. O`Neil - Cases in Comparative Politics The Republic and Politics of the Republic of Ireland

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