Doubts grow over ‘women in the home’ referendum

Concern in Government that campaign could lead to divisive debates

There is a growing expectation in Government a referendum to replace the article of the Constitution that refers to women’s “duties in the home” will not go ahead in November as promised.

Difficulties in agreeing a wording for a replacement article and fears a referendum campaign could lead to divisive debates about the definition of the family and gender issues have led to a growing expectation the vote will be postponed.

The November referendum was promised by the Government earlier this year, following recommendations from a Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality. In July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that it was still the Government’s intention to proceed with the vote, a view echoed last week by Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien.

Several senior official and political sources, some with direct knowledge of discussions on the issue, however, have told The Irish Times they do not expect the referendum to proceed this year.


“There’s no chance of this happening,” said one senior official.

A senior politician said: “My political gut tells me this won’t be in November.”

A group of senior officials who are working on producing a proposed text for the constitutional amendment have yet to reach agreement. Sources say their discussions have prompted a growing awareness of the potential political pitfalls in proposing changes to a constitutional article that senior officials and politicians agree should change but are not sure to what.

It is understood there are fears that questions could arise during the campaign about the definition of a family and gender issues, leaving ministers facing questions to which they do not have clear answers.

“We will have to be able to answer the question ‘What is a family?’” one politician said. It was not yet clear, he added, that the Government had an answer.

Senior sources, however, are wary that the referendum campaign could become a debate about gender, prompting questions about transgender issues that have proved highly contentious elsewhere.

“This is one of those things that you wade into at your peril,” one minister said.

The senior officials group is expected to meet in the first half of September when it is hoped – though not, sources say, at all certain – that a revised wording for the proposed constitutional change may be finalised.

If approved by a subsequent Cabinet Committee, the proposal could then be approved by the Government in early October. Both Houses of the Oireachtas must then pass legislation, however, to provide for the referendum. This would leave very little time for a public information campaign about the proposals, officials fear.

After extensive deliberations, a Citizens’ Assembly reported in June 2021 the Constitution should be amended to refer explicitly to gender equality and non-discrimination. It also said article 41 of the Constitution, which refers to the family, should be amended “so that it would protect private and family life, with the protection afforded to the family not limited to the marital family”.

It said that article 41.2, which refers to women’s “duties in the home”, should be deleted and replaced with language “that is not gender specific and obliges the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community”.

Last week, a number of NGOs and lobby groups came together to urge the Government to publish a wording for the proposed constitutional change and name a date for the referendum.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times