Ireland Rejects Constitution Changes, Keeping ‘Women in the Home’ Language

Voters in Ireland rejected two proposed changes to the country’s Constitution that would have removed language about women’s duties being in the home and broadened the definition of family beyond marriage, dealing a blow to the government that analysts said suggested the weakness of their campaign to pass the proposals.

After a series of referendums in recent years had reshaped Ireland’s Constitution in ways that reflect the country’s more secular and liberal modern identity, the result came as a surprise to some, including the government. But analysts said that rather than signaling a step back from those values, the results reflected a confusing, disjointed campaign that had left many voters reluctant to vote yes.

Each proposal was defeated by a wide margin, according to the results, which were announced on Saturday, an unexpected defeat for equality campaigners and for the coalition government of Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, or prime minister.

Despite the fact that all of the country’s major political parties supported both proposals, some critics said the proposed clauses did not go far enough, while others faulted phrasing that they said was too broad.

Mr. Varadkar, speaking Saturday after the votes had been tallied, said the defeat was clear.

“As head of government and on behalf of the government, we accept responsibility for the result,” he said. “It was our responsibility to convince the majority of people to vote ‘Yes,’ and we clearly failed to do so.”

Irish citizens went to the polls on Friday, International Women’s Day, to vote in two referendums to amend the country’s 87-year-old Constitution, which was drafted when the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on many aspects of life in Ireland was immense.

Supporters viewed the proposed amendments as vital to ensuring that the Constitution reflected the country’s more secular and liberal modern identity. But many voted “no” to both referendum questions.

Analysts and politicians said the results were more complex than a simple rejection of the proposed changes. A lower-than-expected voter turnout and confusing messaging by the “Yes” campaign may have contributed to the proposals’ failures, they said.

Still, 44 percent of the population turned out for the vote, and 67.7 percent of voters refused the changes, according to the official results.

Laura Cahillane, an associate professor at the University of Limerick’s law school, who has written about the confusion around the referendums, said that people had concerns about wording from the start.

”When people are confused, they are a lot more likely to vote no and reject change,” Ms. Cahillane said in an interview on RTÉ, the public broadcast network, on Saturday night.

The government must now look into what went wrong, she added, pointing to the long process by a Citizens’ Assembly that led to recommendations for the proposals, which were then evaluated by a legislative committee set up specifically for the purpose. But some recommendations had been ignored, and the government had introduced its own wording.

Opposition parties and others had warned that the language was confusing, according to Ms. Cahillane, and the government and the political parties did little campaigning to drum up support for the referendums.

“There seemed to be very little interest in the government in listening to the concerns of people on the wording,” she said, “And maybe a certain amount of arrogance in that they believed that people might get carried away on a wave of feminism on International Women’s Day and simply pass these two referendums.”

The first referendum question voters were asked to consider was whether to amend the Constitution’s Article 41, to provide for a wider concept of family. The suggested language would have recognized a family, “whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society,” and would have eliminated another clause.

The second question concerned Article 41.2, which equality activists and women’s rights groups have opposed for decades. That article says that the state “recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the state will “endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

The public voted against replacing that language with a new article that recognized all family caregivers. The proposed article stated, “The state recognizes 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.”

Some opponents of the amendments had argued that the proposed language about “durable relationships” was too broad. Others said that the care provisions did not go far enough toward compelling the state to protect caregivers regardless of their gender.

The retention of Article 41.2, especially the “life within the home” clause, was met with disappointment from women’s rights groups that had long campaigned for its removal on the grounds that it was a relic of a patriarchal past.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland, a charity that promotes women’s rights and equality and had campaigned in favor of the proposals, issued a statement expressing “deep disappointment” about the “No” vote. The charity said that “while the reasons for this are complex, the result is a clear wake-up call that we cannot be complacent about equality and women’s rights.”

Even before the Constitution was first ratified in 1937, some women had demonstrated against the introduction of the language, and this year, the National Women’s Council of Ireland recreated their protest outside government buildings.

In recent decades, the Irish public has made a series of significant changes that rolled back socially conservative policies. In 1995, Ireland voted to end its ban on divorce, and a referendum in 2019 further liberalized divorce laws. In 2015, the country voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and in 2018, a referendum was held that repealed the amendment that had prohibited abortion.

The latest referendums were called after a Citizens’ Assembly in 2020 and 2021 on gender equality that made a series of recommendations, including the changes to the Constitution.

Michael McDowell, a lawyer who is an Independent member of the Seanad, the upper house of Ireland’s legislature, and was once deputy head of government, had campaigned for a “No” vote.

“The government misjudged the mood of the electorate and put before them proposals which they did not explain, proposals which could have serious consequences,” he told RTÉ

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