Book: The Supreme Court
Author: Ruadhán Mac Cormaic
Review by: Shane Stephens, consul general of Ireland in Atlanta
I picked up this worthy-looking book during my summer holidays in the West of Ireland to address my lack of knowledge about a core part of the Irish State. But a duty quickly became an obsession. I was hooked by Mac Cormaic’s politically charged account of Ireland’s Supreme Court and its leading characters from its inception 1923 until 2014.
Drawing on contemporary sources and interviews, the book offers fresh insights into how the newborn Irish State came to its feet after independence and provides striking context to the achievements of the progressive and outward-looking Ireland of today. The values, social structures and language of this not-so-distant Irish past are brought back to life vividly.
Given my role as Irish Consul General, I was especially struck by Mac Cormaic’s account of the significance of a trip to Ireland by the “second most powerful Catholic Irish-American in Washington” just a month after President Kennedy’s iconic 1963 State Visit. While catching up with family in County Roscommon, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan began a 30-year friendship with Irish Supreme Court Judge Brian Walsh that initiated an era of intimate exchange between the institutions.
While they did not always move in the same direction, the U.S. Supreme Court example was highly valuable to its Irish counterpart, not least because both apply common law, a rigorous separation of powers and a written constitution. U.S. case law became a major inspiration for Irish constitutional lawyers and our judges in the 1960s, which Mac Cormaic describes as a period of “judicial activism” in Ireland. Irish Supreme Court decisions were also quoted by its U.S. counterpart.
Those of us who are following Brexit will be interested in the dramatic account of how Ireland’s current framework for popular referenda on EU treaties was initiated by Supreme Court judgements in the ’80s and ’90s. This framework has seen many EU referenda held in Ireland in recent years and has limited our government’s ability to support one side in such campaigns. The merits of aspects of this system are still debated, but it clearly upholds the consent of the Irish people as paramount.
Indeed, this book has something in it for everyone. Almost all hot topics and a range of fascinating stories are covered within its pages — tales of contraception, fluoride in drinking water, the impact of EU law, kosher butchery, reforms and rows. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike will be gripped by this insightful account of Ireland’s highest court.