Why Did Ireland’s Referendums on Family, Women Fail?

Dublin, Ireland — Irish voters’ rejection of proposals to reword constitutional clauses on family roles and the duties of women has left politicians searching for answers.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had presented the vote, conducted on International Women’s Day on Friday and tallied Saturday, as a chance to remove “very old-fashioned, very sexist language about women” from the constitution.

But a proposal to expand the definition of family from a relationship founded on marriage to include other “durable relationships” was rejected by 67.7% of voters, with only 32.3 voting “yes.”

A second referendum on replacing language about a woman’s supposed duties in the home with a clause recognizing the role of family members in the provision of care was rejected by 73.9% of voters.

It was the largest ever referendum defeat in Ireland’s history.

The votes came despite the government, along with most opposition parties, endorsing the proposed changes, and polls forecasting a win for the “Yes-Yes” vote.

What went wrong?

A mix of unclear messaging, a hurried and lackluster “Yes-Yes” campaign and dissatisfaction among “no” voters resulted in an increase in undecided voters leading up to the vote.

Opposition parties gave the proposals only lukewarm support, complaining that the twin questions distorted the suggested wording produced by a Citizen’s Assembly — a nationwide focus group regularly held in Ireland on public issues.

The use of the undefined phrase “durable relationships” in the first referendum was widely criticized as too vague.

The second amendment would have replaced language on “women’s role in the home” with a pledge that the government would “strive” — not be obliged — to support carers in the home.

It failed to mention care outside of the home.

“The government went on a solo run,” said Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the leftist-nationalist Sinn Fein, the largest opposition party which grudgingly backed a “Yes-Yes” vote.

“There is little point in having a Citizens Assembly if the government are then going to ignore the outcome,” she said.

Who voted no and why?

Turnout at less than 50% was lower than in previous referendums, like one on same-sex marriage equality in 2015 and an abortion ban repeal that captured the public attention in 2018.

Only one of 39 constituencies — an affluent area near Dublin — returned a “yes” vote in the family referendum and all 39 voted “no” in the home care referendum.

While “yes” voters failed to turn out in numbers, a disparate coalition of “no” voters angry for different reasons — both progressive and conservative — were energized.   

“When a government doesn’t have all its own side on board and has split its liberal vote, it’s in trouble,” David Quinn, head of the conservative Iona Institute, told AFP.

The care amendment proposal was fiercely criticized by disability rights activists and carers who expressed relief at the result.

“They wanted people and families just to care for people at home, but we need the support of the government too,” Susan Bowles, a 39-year-old care assistant, told AFP in Dublin after the vote. 

An anti-government right-wing protest vote was also a factor, according to analysts. 

“No” campaigners warned against “woke” liberals and “cancelling” the words “women” and “mother” from the constitution.

The result was “a significant victory for the people against the political establishment,” Peadar Toibin, leader of the conservative Aontu, the only parliamentary party to back a No-No vote, told AFP.

Setback for women’s rights?

The ballots had been framed by some on the “Yes-Yes” side as the latest effort to mirror the evolving identity of Ireland, a member of the European Union.

It would also signify the diminishing influence of the once-dominant Catholic Church after the successful 2015 and 2018 referendums.

But holding the referendums on International Women’s Day — reportedly Varadkar’s idea — was a “hammy gesture,” according to Pat Leahy, a journalist with the Irish Times.

“There was an unavoidable sense of people being taken for granted in this,” he said. 

Orla O’Connor, head of the National Women’s Council of Ireland which led the “Yes-Yes” campaign, cautioned against interpreting the result as Ireland voting to keep “life within the home” language for women in the constitution.

“It is more nuanced than that… We will go back and we will fight for those things and continue to fight for equality for families and equality for women,” she told local media.

What is the political fallout?

In the aftermath a visibly shaken Varadkar, who heads up a center-right-green coalition, admitted that the government had received “two wallops” from the public.

With a general election looming within the next 12 months, the defeat poses questions about Varadkar’s and other party leaders’ judgement.

The result “does not mean that general trend of society has lurched permanently to a conservative one,” wrote Leahy. 

“But it definitely means that future governments will not assume that similar constitutional changes are a foregone conclusion,” he said.

Political scientist Eoin O’Malley of Dublin City University called it “a poorly executed referendum that nobody needed or wanted.”

“It was politically designed to secure a liberal legacy for Leo Varadkar, but it makes that legacy look opportunistic,” he told AFP.

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