The Irish Times view on gender equality: a manifesto for change

The Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations on gender equality go well beyond the pious and perfunctory formulas that so often shape discussion in the area

A Citizens’ Assembly session in February 2020. During the pandemic, the assembly’s meetings have taken place virtually. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

A Citizens’ Assembly session in February 2020. During the pandemic, the assembly’s meetings have taken place virtually. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Few passages in Bunreacht na hÉireann are showing their age more than the clause that stipulates that the State shall “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. For some, those words have always been irrelevant. Others regard them benignly. As then supreme court judge Susan Denham observed in 2001, the clause recognised “the significant role played by wives and mothers in the home” and the “immense benefit” of that work. It did not exclude women from other roles, she remarked. But there is no doubt that the wording, which was fiercely controversial even in 1937, reflected an extremely narrow conception of women’s experiences and their role in society. Calls for its removal have grown louder with the years, and the fresh recommendation by the Citizens’ Assembly, which voted by 80 per cent to replace the passage, should give extra weight to the argument.

While the assembly’s call for removal of that wording made the headlines, however, its suggestion for what should replace it is more radical – and refreshing. Members voted for gender-neutral language that would oblige the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and community. They also approved extending constitutional protection of the married family to include all kinds of families and to add an explicit reference to gender equality and non-discrimination in the text. A constitution is a set of general organising principles, but it is also a statement of national values. Inserting language such as this would be an important assertion, symbolically and practically, of the State’s priorities.

The assembly, and the Constitutional Convention before it, have been a valuable experiment in deliberative democracy. With the benefit of experts and a calm environment for debate, their members have shown commitment, seriousness and real insight. But their ideas have also been surprising and have nudged politicians into decisions in areas, most notably marriage equality and abortion, where they were behind the people. The recommendations on gender equality hold to that tradition in that they make detailed calls on Government that go well beyond the pious and perfunctory formulas that so often shape this discussion. Members called for a publicly-funded model of high-quality childcare and an increase in spending on childcare from the current 0.37 per cent of GDP to at least 1 per cent by 2030. They looked for better pay and conditions for carers and endorsed higher gender quotas for the public and private sectors to speed up progress towards equal gender representation.

All of this amounts to an exciting, progressive manifesto for change in a critical policy area. And it’s a challenge to a political class whose ambition in that area has consistently fallen short.

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