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Irish PM concedes defeat in referendums about women’s role in the home, definition of family | CBC News



Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar conceded defeat Saturday as two constitutional amendments he supported that would have broadened the definition of family and removed language about a woman’s role in the home were headed toward rejection.

Varadkar, who pushed the vote to enshrine gender equality in the country’s constitution by removing “very old-fashioned language” and trying to recognize the realities of modern family life, said voters had delivered “two wallops” to the government.

“Clearly we got it wrong,” he said of the two referendums held on Friday, which was International Women’s Day. “While the old adage is that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, I think when you lose by this kind of margin, there are a lot of people who got this wrong, and I am certainly one of them.”

Opponents argued that the amendments were poorly worded, and voters said they were confused with the choices that some feared would lead to unintended consequences.

Gary Murphy, a politics professor at Dublin City University, said via email on Saturday that the results marked a setback for Varadkar, but “it is still unclear” if this would carry over to the general election, which must be held within a year.

A changing Ireland

The referendums were viewed as part of Ireland’s evolution from a conservative, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country in which divorce and abortion were illegal, to an increasingly diverse and socially liberal society. The proportion of residents who are Catholic fell from 94.9 per cent in 1961 to 69 per cent in 2022, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The social transformation has been reflected in a series of changes to Ireland’s Constitution, which dates from 1937, though the country was not formally known as the Republic of Ireland until 1949. Irish voters legalized divorce in a 1995 referendum, backed same-sex marriage in a 2015 vote and repealed a ban on abortions in 2018.

The first question dealt with a part of the constitution that pledges to protect the family as the primary unit of society. Voters were asked to remove a reference to marriage as the basis “on which the family is founded” and replace it with a clause that said families can be founded “on marriage or on other durable relationships.” If passed, it would have been the constitution’s 39th amendment.

A woman arrives with children at a polling station to vote in two referendums that aimed to enshrine gender equality in the Irish Constitution, in Dublin on Friday. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

A proposed 40th amendment would have removed a reference that a woman’s place in the home offered a common good that could not be provided by the state and deleted a statement that said mothers shouldn’t be obligated to work out of economic necessity if it would neglect their duties at home.

It would have added a clause saying the state will strive to support “the provision of care by members of a family to one another.”

‘A hugely missed opportunity’

Siobhán Mullally, a law professor and director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway, said it was patronizing for Varadkar to schedule the vote on International Women’s Day, thinking people would use the occasion to strike the language about women in the home. The so-called care amendment wasn’t that simple.

While voters support removing the outdated notion of a woman’s place in the home, they also wanted new language recognizing state support of family care provided by those who aren’t kin, she said.

Some disability rights and social justice advocates opposed the measure because it was too restrictive in that regard.

“It was a hugely missed opportunity,” Mullally said. “Most people certainly want that sexist language removed from the constitution. There’s been calls for that for years, and it’s taken so long to have a referendum on it. But they proposed replacing it with this very limited, weak provision on care.”

Varadkar said his camp hadn’t convinced people of the need for the vote, never mind issues over how the questions were worded. Supporters and opponents of the amendments said the government had failed to explain why change was necessary or mount a robust campaign.

In terms of warning signs for the government ahead of the vote, Dublin City University’s Murphy pointed to an apparent “general apathy of the campaign which failed to energize the electorate to any degree.”

Government ‘misjudged’ mood: senator

“The government misjudged the mood of the electorate and put before them proposals which they didn’t explain and proposals which could have serious consequences,” Sen. Michael McDowell, an Independent who opposed both measures, told Irish broadcaster RTE.

Labour Party Leader Ivana Bacik told RTE that she supported the measures despite concerns over their wording but said the government had run a lacklustre campaign.

The debate was less charged than the arguments over abortion and gay marriage. Ireland’s main political parties all supported the changes, including centrist government coalition partners Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the biggest opposition party, Sinn Fein.

One political party that called for “no” votes was Aontú, a traditionalist group that split from Sinn Fein over the larger party’s backing for legal abortion. Peadar Tóibín, the leader of Aontú, said the government’s wording was so vague it would lead to legal wrangles, and most people “do not know what the meaning of a durable relationship is.”

Opinion polls had suggested support for the “yes” side in both referendums, but many voters on Friday said they found the issue too confusing or complex to change the constitution.

“It was too rushed,” said Una Ui Dhuinn, a nurse in Dublin. “We didn’t get enough time to think about it and read up on it. So I felt, to be on the safe side, ‘no, no’ — no change.”

Murphy said that “all the evidence from referendums in the past shows that if the electorate is confused about what a referendum is about, then it will vote no.”

“In that context, the blame lies squarely at the door of the government,” he said.

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