Referendum blues

Referendum blues

Irish voters have inflicted a comprehensive and humiliating political defeat on Ireland’s political and NGO class, which overwhelmingly supported proposals presented as “progressive” measures updating the Constitution. 


Shortly, the changes were badly drafted, unclear as to their purpose, erased women and seemed to reduce the state’s obligations to vulnerable groups, particularly the disabled and their carers. 

Some background

Ireland’s 1937 constitution reflected a conservative Catholic approach to social matters. Article 41.2 referred to a woman’s “life within the home” and how it gave the State “a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. The same article also placed an obligation on the state to enable mothers to stay at home and not “neglect … their duties in the home”. It reflected both reality – women’s unpaid work did sustain Irish society (not just it and not just then) – and aspiration: this was how Ireland and Irish women should be. 

The Catholic Church was given effective control over much social policy – a power it hideously abused. Revelations of its activities have done significant – possibly irreparable – damage to its reputation. But there was a large dollop of hypocrisy in Irish society’s response to these revelations. It suited the government very well to outsource its responsibilities – especially for women, children and the vulnerable – to the church. It turned a blind eye to what was going on – not just what religious bodies did – but the endemic domestic and sexual violence within the family. It suited Ireland to pretend it was a God-fearing country while ignoring abandoned babies, girls going abroad for abortions, child abuse, wives trapped in unhappy marriages, violence perpetrated on women by fathers, husbands. The Church may not have been held to account as it should have been. But one group has certainly not been held to account at all: Irish men – those who took their pleasure, walked away from the consequences and abused their position in the family. John McGahern’s books are a good account of the often bleak brutal realities of Irish life. Despite much change, the realities of womens’ lives, their responsibilities, the difficulties they face, the unpaid, often unnoticed “support without which the common good cannot be achieved” have not disappeared.

The changes? 

The precise details can be found here. Briefly, the definition of “family” was to be changed to include “other durable relationships”; marriage would no longer be described as the family’s foundation. The care amendment deleted all references to women, mothers and what they do and replaced it with a reference to “the provision of care, by members of a family to one another” which the State would “strive to support”.

Why was this problematic?

  1. Who benefited from the changes?

The Family amendment was described as removing “sexist language”. So what? Irish women have long since achieved lives beyond the home, regardless of the Constitution’s wording. Divorce and abortion have given them control over their own lives. What did this amendment do for them? This was never explained. It was presented as something similar to the abortion, divorce and gay marriage referenda. But the change was unlike those: they gave no rights to those denied them nor did they enlarge peoples’ liberties. What then was their point?

2. What did voters see?

If you are not clear about what you want to achieve and who benefits, people will draw their own conclusions. There was no definition of what “durable relationships” meant. This would be down to the courts, politicians said, ignoring the reality that this both creates uncertainty and is dependant on expensive court cases. Nor was there an explanation of why all references to women needed to be removed. Many took the view that if women were not mentioned, their interests were likely to be ignored not strengthened or enlarged. This is not an unreasonable view, especially in a society with a long tradition of ignoring womens’ interests, no matter what fine words the Constitution contained. 

The Care changes were a particular concern: it looked as if the state was dumping responsibility for care of the vulnerable, particularly the disabled, on carers, overwhelmingly women, while significantly weakening its own responsibility to support either carers or those needing care. Disabled people have few legal rights in Ireland; there was concern that this position would now be constitutionally enshrined. A proposed Disability Bill in 2023 which would have given the disabled legal rights to treatments, therapies and care support was struck down by the government on the basis that it would impose a challenging “burden” on the state. This was echoed by statements from Varadkar which seemed to suggest that the state should not have such responsibility and that the disabled would have to rely on what their families could do for them. One TD has gone so far as to say that the revised wording echoed Thatcher’s views on there being no such thing as society.

3. Groupthink

There was also considerable anger at a political class which seemed to be talking only to those who agreed with it, including NGO’s – overwhelmingly funded by the government but claiming to represent particular groups – pushing the changes. It seemed out of touch. Some of this related to other matters: Ireland’s Hate Crime Bill has raised concerns that it will be used by the state to shut down debate rather than engage; immigration has raised tensions; the gender self-ID law’s provisions are not, according to opinion polls, supported by the Irish public. When issues have arisen, Varadkar’s responses have often seemed uneasy and tin-eared, sometimes petulant. 

Ultimately, those in favour could not explain why they were needed and how they would make things better. It is not enough to describe a proposal as “progressive” if you cannot describe what that progress actually is. It is not enough to say that you are embedding equality in the constitution and then erase all mention of half the population in the section dealing with family and relationships. It is not enough to focus on language but ignore the reality of what your changes mean. So No it was.

Are there lessons for us here?

Two main ones:

  1. The system of patronage which has developed whereby the political class maintain and fund unaccountable client NGO’s, rewarding their messaging with behind the scenes influence is both fundamentally undemocratic, risks creating a false narrative disconnecting politicians from voters and creates conflicts of interest.
  2. If you want to make a change, you need to show – not assert – why it is needed, who it will benefit, who it will impact or harm, how you will prevent that harm, what the unintended consequences might be and how you guard against its abuse. Too often change is presented as a self-evident good; assertion is substituted for explanation and persuasion; and any questions/objections or differences of opinion are shouted down as stupid/bigoted/ignorant/not valid. Do that once too often and voters will respond in the way Irish voters have. It is a lesson our political class would do well to heed.


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