The Government has announced plans to hold referendums to remove the constitutional reference to the role of women in the home – and expand the concept of the family within the Constitution – in votes to be held on March 8th, 2024, International Women’s Day.
What are the exact changes proposed by Government? And why are they proposing each?
There are four changes proposed to Article 41 on The Family.
The first is to Article 41.1, which reads as follows: “The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”
The Government wants to insert the nine words in italics: “The State recognises the Family, whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”
Why is this change being recommended?
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the proposed change acknowledges that families can be founded on relationships other than marriage, such as a family headed by a lone parent, grandparent or guardian. He said the Constitution will continue to explicitly protect the family and the institution of marriage. The Government believes this change would put other long-term committed relationships on an equal footing with marriage.
What is the second proposed change?
The Government is proposing the deletion in its entirety of Article 41.2, which reads: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, 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.”
Why is this being recommended?
In short, the Government believes this statement is out of date and no longer reflects modern societal norms. Or, as Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman put it: “A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, whether that is in the workforce, in education, or in the home.”
What is the third change proposed?
The next would be to Article 41.3, which currently reads: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”
The Government wants to delete the six words in italics: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”
Why is this being recommended?
Mr Varadkar said this is, again, an instance of “Constitutional catch-up”. It is recognising that families are not just based on marriage. “Most people will understand in Ireland that for a very long time there were a lot of families raised by a single parent, or by parents who have been together a very long time, but our Constitution does not recognise them as families, so that is a significant change,” he said.
What is the fourth proposed change?
This would see the insertion of an entirely new article, Article 42B, stating: “The State recognises that the provision of care by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision.”
Why is this being recommended?
Mr O’Gorman said the Constitution fails to fully recognise care in the family, whether that is of children, siblings or grandparents. The new article would “provide explicit constitutional recognition of the value of care in families”.
Are the proposals in line with recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly and Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality?
Not exactly. The committee wanted to see the Constitution amended to refer explicitly to gender equality and non-discrimination.
Legal advice given to the Government, however, is that doing so “could weaken the all-encompassing commitment to equality within the Constitution at present”, Mr Varadkar said. “All citizens are equal before the law, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, social class or anything else. We believe that by elevating any particular category... it could unwittingly downgrade others.”
What has the reaction been?
There was an initially lukewarm reception from NGOs on the proposals regarding carers.
However, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWC) is expected to formally launch a “YesYes” referendum campaign next week.
Family Carers Ireland are also now calling for a “YesYes” vote, saying the referendum is a “potentially watershed moment in our history”. They say it would be a “powerful step towards real change in how we as a nation recognise and value those who care for our most vulnerable”.
One Family, Ireland’s national organisation for one-parent families and people sharing parenting or who are separating, has also called for a Yes vote on both referendums. Although Opposition parties tried to introduce amendments in a Dáil debate, People Before Profit have still called for a Yes vote. TDs in the Labour Party will discuss the issue next week after the Seanad completes its consideration of the legislation, and their executive board will also then consider the matter before announcing the party’s intentions.
What are the main issues in the campaign likely to be?
One issue which has emerged centres around the meaning of the phrase “durable relationships” that is proposed to be inserted in the Constitution as part of the concept of family vote. During a Dáil debate, Mr O’Gorman was asked exactly what a durable relationship was. He said this referred to a serious and tangible relationship that is not fleeting or transient.
The Minister has also been asked whether polygamous relationships and “throuples” come under the umbrella of a “durable” relationship. He said this was not the case, as polygamous relationships do not represent a “moral institution” in Irish law.
Questions have also been raised around whether there would be implications for family reunification in immigration cases, under the new definitions. Mr O’Gorman said the Government has advice from the Attorney General that that there will be no legal impact on immigration law.
In terms of care, the Government proposes to recognise the provision of care “by members of a family to one another” and commits the State to “strive to support such provision” – stopping short of committing to support care in the wider community. There will be criticism from some carers and politicians that the State should do more than “strive” to support care and, furthermore, that the State should support care in the wider community.
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