Subscriber OnlyOpinion

March 8th referendums: The debates, theories, spats and ‘mansplaining’ summarised

For months, the Irish Times opinion section has been hosting the debate. Read your way into the Yes and No arguments

On March 8th, voters will be asked to vote in two referendums on proposed changes to the Constitution.

The first referendum concerns the expansion of the concept of family in the Constitution. The second proposes to delete Article 41.2 – the “by her life within the home” clause – and replace it with new text providing recognition for care provided by family members to each other.

Since last September, Irish Times opinion writers and columnists have been thrashing out the implications of the full spectrum of votes: Yes-Yes, No-No, Yes-No and No-Yes votes.

Opinion - collection montage Labour leader Ivana Bacik and Eilis Barry of FLAC
Ivana Bacik and Eilis Barry debate

Should ‘women in the home’ referendum be delayed?

The debate was kicked off in the opinion section last September by Labour leader Ivana Bacik and Eilis Barry of FLAC. For Bacik, a central concern was that Article 41.2 had to go. “Within our fundamental legal text, women and mothers remain embedded exclusively within the domestic sphere, as if the marriage bar was still in place,” she wrote, arguing that it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with acceptable wording. “While developing the appropriate wording for any constitutional change is always complex, it is not rocket science.”


Barry was concerned that “an information vacuum about the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments ... was likely to be filled by attacks on the rights of some of the most marginalised groups in Irish society, such as the transgender community” fears which have so far proved unfounded.


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

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

However, in a comment that foreshadowed FLAC’s ultimate decision not to support the care amendment, she wrote: “We need to do more than replace it with a gender-neutral provision in relation to “care” to ensure meaningful changes to the rights and lives of carers, and to tackle the disproportionate burden placed on women in terms of caring.” She also warned about the risk of endorsing “damaging negative stereotypes of [some] groups as “subjects of care” rather than autonomous individuals and rights holders.” Read the full debate.

Opinion - collection montage Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council
Orla O’Connor

A No vote would be truly retrograde

Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council used the occasion of Nollaig na mBan on January 6th to come out in support of the Yes Yes side. “Article 41.2 may not hurt women directly, but it frames our lives, our society and our value,” she wrote. She was not overjoyed at the proposed wording – “Government could and should have given us stronger wording” – but believed “we have to win these votes, because a No vote would banish these crucial issues to the end of the political queue for at least a generation.” Read Orla O’Connor’s article.

Opinion - collection montage Karen Kiernan and Donncha O’Connell debate
Karen Kiernan and Donncha O’Connell debate

Is the wording too vague?

The second debate was held in the opinion pages later in January: this time Karen Kiernan of One Family went head to head with University of Galway law professor Donncha O’Connell on the question of whether the wording was too vague.

Kiernan was hopeful that “a Yes-Yes vote in the March 8th referendums will ensure equal treatment for tax, welfare and housing ... Concerns have been raised about whether the language around families in the referendum is too vague, but as Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said, the wording is designed to recognise the ‘diversity of family in Ireland today’.”

It is time too, she wrote, “to recognise the value of care in our Constitution. From our work with people sharing parenting of their children after separation, we know that dads as well as mams provide care and love.”

However, O’Connell asked “why settle for so little?” He argued that these “underwhelming proposals” merely represented more of what he called constitutional vibes. “The Government appears to be taking a chance on the definition of “durable relationships” – while taking no chance at all on the possibility that a reference to “care in the home” could give rise to socioeconomic rights for those dependent on such care or their carers.”

Few lawyers, “apart from some traditionalists, would lose sleep over repeal of the ‘women in the home’ provision,” he predicted. However, with these amendments, “we are substituting one form of patronising recognition in our Constitution for another, without the excuse that it’s 1937. This is an unconscionable bargain and an empty formula. Although ‘striving to support’ will, no doubt, be oversold as an incremental gain, it is no more than a replacement vibe.”

The expansion of family rights was welcome, he went on, but the decision “to include ‘durable relationships’ is a gift to those hungry for a culture war, in which the possible but implausible fuels a tendentious discourse that delights some media driven by controversy, cacophony and clicks.” Read the full debate.

Opinion - collection montage Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell

Voting No is wisest option

Irish Times columnist and Senator Michael McDowell, who advocates a No No side, has used his Wednesday column to tease out his position. On January 10th, he wrote that voting No-No is wisest option in upcoming blindman’s buff referendums. Article 41, he said, “in no way diminishes any choice for mothers but casts an obligation on the State to amplify their free choices ... Mothers and other women working outside the home are in no way prejudiced by the present article. It does not confine women’s choices in any way – even psychologically.”

And on the family amendment, he asked: “Are we talking about households with one male cohabiting with two women or vice versa? Or polygamous relations recognised abroad? Are we confining the term to households at all?” Read the full column.

Two weeks later, he tackled the subject again, asking “With declining marriage rates, is it socially beneficial or wise to make non-marriage the easier, equal and increasing norm in the raising of children?” Read the full column.

The following week (January 31st), he wrote that throuples and polygamy were no laughing matter. McDowell wondered “what happens when parties to foreign marriages that are in fact polygamous legally come to reside in Ireland and happily continue their polygamous relationship? That is not unlawful. Could those relationships be ‘durable’? ... So, while ‘throuples’ may be laughed away, the implications of the proposed amendments to constitutionally detach ‘family’ from ‘marriage’ remain very real.” Read the full column.

He warned in another column on February 7th that the family referendum would not merely be a step into the “known unknown” – but into an entirely foreseeable and avoidable mess, and a week later elaborated on what might happen when a durable relationship ends. Read the full column.

Opinion - collection montage Fintan O’Toole
Fintan O’Toole

Wording reinforces conservative 1930s doctrine

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole didn’t pull his punches on the proposed wording of the referendum on care when it was first published in December. It was, he wrote, “dreadful.”

“It’s political genuflection. And not even the proper sort. The State is twitching a knee towards one of the most fundamental sources of inequality among its citizens. But we should not mistake this anxious little spasm for genuine recognition of the crucial importance of what is at stake here. Our society is structured to ensure that no good deed goes unpunished. There’s a price to be paid for caring and it is, overwhelmingly, women who pay it.” Read the full column.

However, returning to the issue in February, he tackled the nonsensical idea that Article 41.2 had no real life consequences. “Just ask the Aer Lingus girls,” as the headline on his piece put it.

He went on to tell the story of Una Barry, “a highly valued worker in the airline’s press office” until she married an Aer Lingus executive. “Aer Lingus didn’t want to fire Una, so she was rehired on a day-to-day basis. Not week to week or month to month. Day to day. But other Aer Lingus workers were up in arms about even this concession. Who were these sexist pigs who objected to Una’s temporary employment? Here’s where the story gets suitably psychedelic. They were the single women in the Aer Lingus office.” He concluded: “I keep hearing and reading that this language in article 41.2 was always just aspirational and never had any real-life consequences. It wasn’t and it did.” Read the full column.

Opinion - collection montage Justine McCarthy
Justine McCarthy

Mansplainers are telling us we’re reading it all wrong

Irish Times columnist Justine McCarthy was becoming sick of the “mansplainers” who are, she wrote, “are in full ‘listen ladies!’ voice, telling us we’re reading the thing all wrong and finding prejudice, inequality, discrimination, exceptionalism, reductiveness, sexism, paternalism and offensiveness where none exists. They inform us with the authority of their male life experiences that article 41.2 has made no difference to women with jobs outside the home, ignoring any philosophical or psychological trickle-through effect on society’s attitudes.”

Until now, she noted, “it seemed there was near consensus that the woman-in-the home article is repugnant to the Proclamation’s vision of a republic of equal opportunities for all.”

She was baffled to note how many women now say “want to retain article 41.2. Several have had their say in the letters page of this newspaper, mostly declaring that they value Bunreacht na hÉireann’s protection for their lives in the home or arguing that they have enjoyed careers outside the home without encountering any impediment. One has to ask: how do they know? What yardstick is used to measure the seminal influence the constitutional provision has had on the gender pay gap, female representation in public life, on company boards and on corporate promotions? To those women who wish to keep the article, the obvious question is this: what good does it do the women with no homes? What good did it do for Brigid McCole, Ann Lovett, Eileen Flynn, Joanne Hayes, Christine Buckley, Vicky Phelan, Philomena Lee? What good did it do for the mothers who were locked up in Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes and had their children stolen from them for export or used without their knowledge or consent in vaccine trials?” Read the full column.

A pragmatic solution for those who don’t want the State involved in their relationship is staring us in the face, suggested Justine McCarthy. “The provision of civil partnership could set a benchmark for many “durable relationships” – albeit, not for all – thus, in those cases, eliminating the scenario of “unelected” judges deciding its meaning for us. Mind you, give me the wisdom of the Supreme Court over the logic of the Rural Independents Group, Michael Lowry, or many other of our elected representatives.”

Opinion - collection montage Laura Perrins
Laura Perrins

There is nothing sexist in the statement that women have duties in the home

One of those women who would like to keep the amendment is Laura Perrins, a barrister qualified in the UK and Ireland who chose to stay home, in part to spend more time caring for her children. “As far as those campaigning for a Yes vote are concerned, the very idea that women have duties at home is wrong, sexist and should be relegated to history. But this is misguided. There is nothing sexist in the recognition of the fact that women have lives within the home, or in the statement that women have duties in the home. It’s simply a reflection of reality,” she wrote in an opinion column on February 8th.

“Our Constitution should reflect reality. The public role of women has changed enormously over the decades, but the importance of their work in the home has not.” Read the full article.

Opinion - collection montage Breda O’Brien
Breda O’Brien

I’m voting No because I will not be hypocritical about marriage

Like McDowell, Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien is advocating for a No vote in the family referendum because – unlike the middle class professionals who claim not to have any truck with traditional values, but marry anyway, something she dubs “talking left and walking right” – she doesn’t want to see marriage downgraded. “The proposed wording manages to downplay the central stabilising role of marriage, which most people still aspire to, and also undermines the choice of those who actively reject marriage ... some people simply do not want to marry for various reasons, including that they just don’t want the State involved in a personal, intimate relationship. He suggests that the State should respect such choices. If the new clause sets up a kind of equivalence between marriage and other durable relationships, the choice disappears.” Read the full column.

Opinion - collection montage Roderic O’Gorman
Roderic O’Gorman

We can consign narrow view of families and women to the past

Defending the wording on those “durable relationships”, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman wrote in an opinion column that: one-parent families and long-term cohabiting couples will be recognised within the constitutional definition of family, and crucially, will mean bringing thousands of children and families into the constitutional protections afforded to a family. Durable relationships are relationships of strength, stability and commitment. They are the relationships that people we know are in, relationships we instinctively think of as a family, but relationships which, right now, are excluded from constitutional recognition because they are not based on a marriage.” Read the full column.

Opinion - collection montage Maebh Harding UCD
Maebh Harding

Fearmongering about downgrading of marriage is unfounded

Michael McDowell’s colleague at UCD, Dr Maebh Harding, assistant professor in Family and Child Law, wrote that the fearmongering about the downgrading of marriage was unfounded. On February 15th she pointed out that “recognition, even at constitutional level, does not mean that all the different types of families will be treated by law in the same way. Irish family law already recognises that families come in different formats but there is a hierarchy of legal protection with marriage at the top.”

On the care amendment, she noted that “if you look at the original wording of Article 41.2 without any understanding of history or context, it looks promising for women: an acknowledgment of the work that many women do within the home and a pledge to provide some kind of economic support for caring work in the home. But Article 41.2 has not been interpreted by Irish courts in this way. The courts “shoulda, woulda, coulda” used Article 41.2 to oblige the State to provide financial recognition and assistance for women’s care work in the home, but they chose not to.” Read the full article.

Opinion - collection montage Jennifer O'Connell
Jennifer O’Connell

Yes to dismantling a society where women’s lives didn’t matter

Irish Times opinion editor and columnist Jennifer O’Connell picked up on this theme. No wonder that according to recent Irish Times polling, more than half the population are in the “haven’t got a clue” camp, she wrote. “Amid the columns and radio debates; the talk of Christmas cards and wedding invites; the baffling segues into ‘throuples’ and polygamy; the arguments about whether the Constitution does or does not suggest women’s place is in the home; the impressive certainty of men who insist that Article 41.2 has no bearing, real or psychological, on the lives of women; the response from women who say that it very much does have an impact and removing it would rob them of “their ennobling acknowledgment in An Bunreacht” ... it’s easy to forget what these referendums are actually about.”

And that is “the desire that the Constitution should recognise that the breadth and complexity of families, the nature of care and women’s lives is greater than could have been captured by a document drawn up by a group of (married) men (with stay at home wives) in 1930s Ireland.”

Article 41.2 “was the scaffolding constructed around women’s lives which ensured that they remained small and confined. It was the values statement of a society in which women drew status from marriage – and in the case of mothers, where a wedding ring could mean the difference between freedom and incarceration.” Read the full column.

Opinion - collection montage Una-Mullally
Una Mullally

Antigovernment protest vote would be a mistake

Referendum campaigns are often quite ugly in Ireland, and the No-No campaign has been characterised by fear-based politics and the conjuring of hypotheticals, noted Irish Times columnist Una Mullally in her Monday column on February 26th.

“An antigovernment protest vote ignores the substance of what we’re being asked to vote on. I am far from a fan of this Government. But using these referendums to do that is like kicking the cat of someone you don’t like. Ultimately, the target of your ire will not feel the pain, and something else gets hurt in the process.” Read the full column.