Irish leader concedes defeat on ‘women in the home,’ family amendments

Irish leader concedes defeat on ‘women in the home,’ family amendments

The Irish government on Saturday conceded defeat in twin referendums to change the constitution, a stinging rebuke for the ruling coalition as it sought to update language on the role of women and how to define family in modern Ireland.

The vote was held Friday, International Women’s Day, and featured two proposals to modify the 1937 constitution. On Saturday afternoon, even before the counts were completed, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said it was clear that the referendums had been “defeated comprehensively.”

“We struggled to convince people of the necessity or need for the referendum at all, let alone the detail and the wording. That’s obviously something we are going to have to reflect on,” Varadkar told reporters at Dublin Castle. He said that his government respected the results of the referendum, adding “clearly, we got it wrong.”

There was widespread support for removing an outdated clause on the importance of a woman’s “life within the home,” but there also were concerns about the proposed wording to replace it. A second question, which recommended expanding the definition of a family to include “durable relationships,” was opposed by voters on both the left and the right.

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The portion of Ireland’s constitution that attracted the most attention was a clause that says: “Mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, said parts of the constitution had “just aged badly.” The “women in the home” clause, she said, was “no longer suited to an Ireland anxious to promote gender equality.”

Ireland, once deeply conservative and among the poorest nations in Western Europe, has emerged in recent decades as a socially liberal country. In 1995, it voted to legalize divorce; in 2015, it legalized same-sex marriage; and in 2018, the country overturned its abortion ban.

The government initially thought this month’s referendums would pass easily. But analysts said confusion around the amendments’ wording and a lackluster government campaign ultimately contributed to their defeat.

Tomas Finn, a lecturer in history at the University of Galway, said there was a “desire to remove this language from the constitution for quite a long time.”

“But the question,” he said, “became what should replace it?”

Finn said the government might have been more successful had it proposed just deleting the parts of the constitution the government deemed old-fashioned or sexist.

To replace the passage about the mother’s duties in the home, the government drafted a nongendered clause that said the state would “strive” to support “the provision of care by members of a family to one another.”

For that reason, advocates for people with disabilities campaigned for a “no” vote. They said the new text suggested that responsibility for caring for dependents lies chiefly with the family. They argued that it should first be the responsibility of the state to look after all of its citizens equally.

“As a rule, keep it simple, is the best advice when running referendums,” Gail McElroy, a politics professor at Trinity College Dublin, wrote in an email Saturday.

She said the government had complicated its messaging by running two referendums on the same day, and by pairing one proposal to delete text with another adding language to a separate clause.

Still, McElroy said, the results will have “no effective change for women’s rights in Ireland; discrimination on the grounds of gender is prohibited by law.”

Ireland ranks relatively high on gender equality indexes. The World Economic Forum’s 2023 report on the global gender gap ranked Ireland 11th; the United States was 43rd.

On the other referendum question, which dealt with what is known as the “family amendment,” the government wanted the constitution to recognize that families can be founded on relationships other than marriage, such as unmarried parents or a single parent or grandparents.

“I want there to be a ‘yes’ vote that says all families are equal,” Varadkar said in a recent interview. Varadkar is in a same-sex relationship but is not married.

More than 40 percent of children in Ireland are born outside of marriage.

Ireland’s Catholic bishops came out against the amendment, saying it “diminishes the unique importance of the relationship between marriage and family in the eyes of Society and State and is likely to lead to a weakening of the incentive for young people to marry.”

Other critics raised concerns about the term “durable relationship,” which they said was unclear and could have unforeseen legal consequences.

Michael McDowell, a member of the Irish Senate and a lawyer and former justice minister, was among those who said he voted no.

“The government misjudged the mood of the electorate and put before them proposals which they didn’t explain and proposals which could have serious consequences,” he told Irish broadcaster RTE.

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