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Irish government defeated over referendums on family and women’s roles

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The Irish government has been defeated in the twin referendums on changing the country’s constitution.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who said he wanted to remove “very old-fashioned language” in his country’s constitution, admitted the amendments had been “defeated comprehensively on a respectable turnout”.

“It was our responsibility to convince the majority of people to vote ‘yes’ and we clearly failed to do so,” he said.

Official results, shortly after 7pm, showed 67.7% voting against the family amendment, which had proposed extending the meaning of “family” beyond marriage, instead including households based on “durable” relationships.

Just before 9.30pm, 73.9% rejected the care amendment, which proposed deleting references to the centrality of a woman’s “life within the home” and mothers’ “duties in the home” when providing care, replacing them with an article acknowledging the importance of family members in general, without defining them by gender.

Earlier, transport minister Eamon Ryan said the government “didn’t convince the public of the argument for a ‘yes, yes’ vote”.

Mr Ryan said: “You have to respect the voice of the people. It’s a complex issue, both are complex.

“I would have preferred a ‘yes, yes’ (but) I don’t accept that our campaign did go wrong.”

Image:
Irish transport minister Eamon Ryan. Pic: PA

Changes to the constitution must be approved by Irish citizens through a national vote, which happened on Friday.

But turnout was just 44.36%, well down on the abortion referendum in 2018, which saw a turnout of 64%.

The Irish government campaigned for ‘yes’ votes to both amendments, saying the changes would get rid of sexist language, recognise family care and extend protection to more families.

Opinion polls had suggested support for the ‘yes’ side on both votes.

But commentators said the proposal to spread the burden of care for family members with disabilities to the entire family instead of just women became a row about the willingness and ability of the state to support carers.

Senator Michael McDowell, a former tanaiste (second-highest ranking member of the Irish government) and ex-justice minister, campaigned for a ‘no, no’ vote, describing the proposals as “unwise social experimentation” with the constitution.

He said: “I trust individual voters – they looked at what was being put before them and they said ‘no’.

“Many of them will have a slightly different perspective as to why they were voting ‘no’, but in the end we live in a republic and the sovereign power is the people and every individual vote is as good as anybody else’s vote and this is an emphatic repudiation of what I think was unwise social experimentation with the constitution.”

Sinn Fein, which is currently leading the polls ahead of the next general election, also supported a ‘yes, yes’ vote and blamed the government.

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “If there is one big takeaway message from this, it is that support for people with disabilities as full and equal citizens and support for carers is something that has to be taken seriously by government.”

A slam dunk, but the government dropped the ball

For years, actually decades, everyone in Ireland knew the outdated “women” language in the constitution would be eventually be ditched by referendum.

It was just a matter of timing and wording really.

This is a modern and fairly liberal European democracy, gradually shedding the vestiges of conservative Catholic control by popular vote. Divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion. All gone, all by referendum.

Language drawn up by men born in the 1800s, referencing a woman’s life and duties being in the home? Easy by comparison. No government could mess this one up.

Enter Leo Varadkar and his hapless coalition.

This will be held up for many years as an example of how not to run a referendum campaign. Pay no attention to any international clickbait headlines declaring that on International Women’s Day, the Irish voted to keep women at home.

This wasn’t about the “sexist” language. It was about the government’s shambolic approach to the vote.

A reluctance to commit resources. Rejecting recommended replacement language in favour of vague aspirations that convinced no one. Poor messaging. And a perceived arrogance and complacency toward the electorate.

Replacing marriage as the family foundation with “durable relationships”, but not defining what on earth a durable relationship was? Ah sure, the courts will sort that one out, the people were told.

Ditching the sexist language, and replacing it with a vague commitment to “strive” to support family carers (who are mostly women)? What does that mean? How do you define “strive” in a legal sense? Do or do not, there is no try, according to Yoda, who definitely would have voted ‘no’.

The answers simply didn’t come, and history shows the Irish voters are more than happy to shoot down referendums when they don’t feel the tangible results to a Yes vote have been explained. Brexit would never have passed with Irish voters. They don’t do vague. Better the devil you know. Status quo prevails.

This was supposed to be the first of a string of feel-good results for Leo Varadkar’s government, ahead of an anticipated early general election. The main opposition party Sinn Fein have been slipping back substantially in polling.

A win in the referendums, good results in the local/European elections in June, a nice give-away budget in October, and boom – the election can be called. If that was indeed the plan, it’s fallen at the first hurdle.

Instead, Mr Varadkar heads off to Washington for the annual bout of St Patrick’s jollity at President Biden’s place, with a pair of ears as red as the shamrock is green.

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