Key civil society groups will consider their approach to two referendums on family and care after a lukewarm reception to the wording for a new constitutional article on the role of carers.
The decision to hold the referendums was welcomed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) yesterday, who are expected to campaign for a Yes vote and applauded moves to delete references to a woman’s role in the home.
However, proposals to reform the constitutional treatment of care fell short of campaigners’ expectations, even as Ministers said the proposed approach would remove language that is “not truly reflective” of today’s Ireland, excludes families not based on marriage, and was “archaic and sexist”.
In recent weeks, NGOs have sought a wording which reflected recommendations from the Citizens Assembly on gender equality and the report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality, which said care should be supported within the home and wider community.
The Government proposes to recognise the provision of care “by members of a family to one another” gives support to society and commits the State to “strive to support such provision” — stopping short of committing to support care in the wider community.
On Tuesday, a coalition of six civil society organisations said: “While we welcome the announcement of the referendum, we note that the wording the Irish people will vote on is significantly different to that recommended [by the committee and assembly]. Our organisations will now take some time to engage with our members, review the wording, and consider its impact on the communities we work with.”
Executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties Liam Herrick said on Tuesday his group “will consider if we play an active role in the referendum or what that role might be”.
Director of the National Women’s Council (NWC) Orla O’Connor said the referendum was the opportunity to “remove limits on women’s role from our Constitution and close this dark chapter of our past”. The NWC said it will consult with its member groups “on the proposed wording by the Government and decide on how NWC can organise a possible referendum campaign”.
The section on care is being introduced as the Government asks people to back a proposal which will delete Article 41.2, which describes a woman’s “life within the home” and references a mother’s “duties in the home”. A separate referendum will amend Article 41 to define the family as “whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationship” which the Government says will remedy the current wording which excludes families not based on marriage.
The Government has asked the Oireachtas committee on equality, which meets privately today to waive pre-legislative scrutiny in a bid to fast-track the referendum — but committee sources said the decision could go either way.
Votes will be held on March 8th, 2024, International Women’s Day.
Dr Laura Cahillane, a constitutional law expert, said the wording of the care amendment meant the Government had “completely fudged an opportunity to do something positive”.
Dr Cahillane, associate law professor at the University of Limerick, said that wording is not in line with the 2021 proposals of the Citizens’ Assembly which had voted that Article 41.2 be replaced with a gender-neutral alternative that had meaning and was not just symbolic.
The assembly voted to have a broader definition of care, which would mean the State had an obligation to support care, she said.
The wording advocated by the Assembly did not impose an “overly onerous” duty on the State, she said. “It meant the State could argue it was taking reasonable measures to support care, but it would still have allowed carers to bring a case arguing that what was being provided was not reasonable.”
“I welcome that the proposed wording removes the outdated language but I am very disappointed and frustrated that it is being replaced by a purely symbolic provision, a cosmetic change.”
The Government will not put a proposal to the people that the constitution would be amended to refer expliclty to gender equality and non-discrimintation - as was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality and the special Oireachtas committee which assessed its recommendations.
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