Women in the Constitution
The introduction of gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language to the Constitution and changes to those articles that refer to a woman’s place within the home have the capacity to stir up trouble for the Government parties. Such changes have, however, been recommended by the constitutional convention. In addition, issues involving same-sex marriage and electoral reform will become hot topics during the coming months.
For decades, politicians of all parties have acknowledged the need to revise the 1937 Constitution. Once specific changes were suggested, however, agreement broke down and the impetus for reform foundered. By establishing a constitutional convention, composed of a majority of ordinary citizens, the Government hoped to circumvent that political logjam, while retaining a final say on reforms. It represented a tentative approach but, so far, progress has been encouraging.
Convention members approved a reduction in the voting age but declined to cut the presidential term from seven to five years. So far, so uncontroversial. Their consideration of the role of women in society has, however, marked a new phase in their deliberations and represents an intrusion into long-established understandings on appropriate social arrangements between church and State.
Equality for women and an enhancement of their participation in politics and public life has received general support from the convention. That, in turn, led to consideration of article 41.2.1 and article 41.2.2 that locate the role of women firmly within the home. An overwhelming majority of members favoured a modification of these articles and their replacement by gender-neutral wording. In advocating government action to gender-proof the constitution and encourage the participation of women in politics, the convention stopped short of recommending that female participation be enhanced by way of a constitutional amendment.
Further down the road, discussion on the electoral system is likely to be heavily influenced by politicians. The possibility exists, however, that fundamental reform of a system that tends to elevate local requirements above the national interest will be advocated. Government agreement to a referendum on proportional representation would be risky, however, because of its exposed position. The coalition parties may advance incrementally, rather than by way of a giant leap. A referendum to abolish the Seanad will be held this year and while such occasions tend to develop into votes of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with government, current indications suggest it will be carried comfortably.
That campaign may become a vehicle for other issues involving the voting age, gender-inclusive language and a woman’s place in society – and that is to be welcomed.