Referendums: Yes votes will see ‘new realities’ put into dated parts of Constitution, McAleese says

Former president says proposals being voted on next Friday ‘part of a journey’ and ‘not a destination’

Former president Mary McAleese has called for Yes votes in the referendums on care and family taking place next Friday.

She said the proposals offer a chance to “insert new realities, new energy and new insights” into parts of the Constitution that have aged badly.

In the March 8th referendums, the Government proposes expanding the constitutional definition of family to recognise “durable relationships”, such as cohabiting couples and their children, and to replace the language around “women in the home” with wording recognising care within families.

Ms McAleese said leaving the two articles as they are would “in my view contradict the dynamic of a people who cared enough to vote overwhelmingly for same sex marriage, who cared enough to ensure that the tragedies of Savita Halappanavar’s death and the death of her unborn child would not be in vain”.


In a keynote address an event in Dublin on Friday hosted by Treoir and One Family, who are seeking Yes votes in the referendums, Ms McAleese said: “Each of those referendums, in 2015 and 2018 respectively, provoked intense debate, involved considerable weighing up of complex arguments and saw our citizens take firm responsibility for necessary constitutional change.”

She said the upcoming votes should not been seen any differently, adding: “I hope between us we not only will change the wording but will then stay with the issues that have been raised including by those who would wish the wording to go further.”

Ms McAleese described the referendums “as the latest step of many on the road to the ‘farther shore’ of full equality, full inclusion which will be easier to reach from a Yes-Yes on March 8th.” The proposals being voted on were “part of a journey” and “not a destination”, she added.

The former president said Yes votes would “remove from the Constitution language and attitudes which have long been controversial on account of perceived sexism and the marginalisation of many people whose strong contribution to family and community life has been under-valued”.

The endorsement of the family proposal would, she said, mean that “so many families whose lived lives enhance our communities and our country but are not based on marriage will see in our revised Constitution the respect they have always deserved and the recognition they have earned, but which is absent, deliberately absent, from the Constitution as currently worded”.


Here’s everything you need to know about the March 8th referendums #referendum #ireland #voting

♬ Light hip-hop beat/long ver.(1425963) - nightbird_bgm

The “so-called carers amendment” was, she said, “an exciting development with considerable future potential, for it sees our families as what they are and always have been – essential communities of mutual care for one another, and it tells families that they are not alone for Government has a constitutional responsibility to strive to support them in caring for one another”.

Where the care referendum was concerned, Ms McAleese said she believed “a resounding Yes vote will place a new spotlight on that world of family care and involve us in a much more dynamic debate underpinned by this fresh constitutional recognition, which is as much a challenge as it is a statement of intent”.

She said polling day offered a “chance to insert new realities, new energy and new insights into parts of our Constitution that have aged badly and are no longer fit for purpose”.

“There is no value in holding on to them for the sake of nostalgia or out of some mistaken notion that the Constitution should be inviolable,” she said.

Other speakers at the event included John O’Meara, who recently won a Supreme Court case for the widow’s pension following the death of his long-time partner and mother of his children; Deirdre McCarthy, a social worker from Cork who was a teenage parent and is a now family carer; and Maxine Walshe, a psychotherapist and carer.

Speaking after the event, Ms McAleese was asked about criticisms from the No side in relation to disability rights and also the definition of durable relationships.

“I think part of the checks and balances built into our Constitution is that we the people are able to change things that become outdated and that’s all that we’re doing in this referendum. We are changing two fundamental things that have become outdated. The reference to women in the home, to mothers in the home, is regarded widely as outdated and anachronistic.

“I know there are people who regard it as celebrating women in the home, but actually the vast majority of people do regard it as anachronistic, they do see the home as a place that is a community of care where people should care, as a team, right across the issue of gender.”

On the plans to widen the definition of family, she said: “We’re preserving marriage, but we’re also saying very positively that family is still the the most fundamental unit of society. Those words are preserved even after the referendum. But we’re also saying that there are many types of relationship now that constitute family that we as a community and a country benefit from, but they are regarded as second class. They’re outside of the meaning of family and the Constitution. And because they’re not based on marriage, they don’t enjoy the public celebration of who they are and what they are. And they feel that and we hear that from people who live in those situations which are manifold, there are many of them, but they are also enduring and they are durable and we should be celebrating and that’s my view.”

There has been criticism from the No side that the definition of a durable relationship is vague and untested.

“Our Constitution, the way in which it’s framed: it’s a code that is very often almost shorthand. It doesn’t articulate every meaning of every single word. That’s the elasticity that allows it to make itself relevant to every successive generation,” Ms McAleese said.

She was also asked about criticism from disabled rights activists who say that the proposal only recognises care within the home and so undermines their right to get access to independent care outside the home.

“My argument there is that in terms of this particular referendum, let’s focus on what it does rather than what it doesn’t do. And what it does give us is a very clear image of what caring is within the family, that it is a family team effort and that the Government will strive to support that team effort, that family effort. Does it address all the issues to do with caring? No, it does not. But what it does do in my view is it takes the debate that has been rightly raised by many disability activists, and says to them, we’re moving this debate on a bit. That bit is what we will take care of next week in the referendum. It moves it on a bit, it doesn’t necessarily move it on to the destination that we want to get to but it does take us a step further along the journey. And that I think is probably the most important thing.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times