On International Women’s Day, Ireland votes on ‘women in the home’ referendum


As the world marks International Women’s Day, Ireland is voting on a pair of referendum questions about how its constitution should refer to the role of women, who is responsible for providing care and how to define a family.

But what at first seemed like a simple decision about updating outdated language in the 1937 constitution has become fraught, and it’s not at all clear which way the country will vote.

While there is widespread support for removing an outdated “women in the home” clause, there is concern over proposed replacement language. Meanwhile, a second referendum question, which proposes expanding the definition of a family to include couples in “durable relationships,” is facing opposition from both the left and right.

Polls opened Friday at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. Results are expected midday Saturday.

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The portion of Ireland’s constitution that has attracted the most attention is a clause that says “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, has said parts of the constitution have “just aged badly.” The “women in the home” clause, she said, was “no longer suited to an Ireland anxious to promote gender equality.”

Ireland, once deeply conservative and among the poorest in Western Europe, has emerged as a socially liberal country. In 1995, it voted to legalize divorce; in 2015, it legalized same-sex marriage; and in 2018, Ireland overturned its abortion ban.

This year’s twin referenda were initially thought to be another sure slam dunk for the government. But while some polls have shown a lead for a “double yes” vote, analysts said the outcome was far from certain given the criticism and the possibility of low voter turnout.

Tomas Finn, a lecturer in history at the University of Galway, said there had been a “desire to remove this language from the constitution for quite a long time, but the question became, what should replace it?”

He said the government may have been “more successful to just delete it, because now it’s controversial, or at least there are concerns about the language proposed to replace it.”

The proposed replacement passage says the state will “strive” to support “the provision of care by members of a family to one another.”

Advocates for people with disabilities campaigned for a “no” vote. They objected that the replacement text suggests that responsibility for caring for dependents lies chiefly within the family. They argued that it should be the responsibility of the state to look after all of its citizens equally.

“What started out as a straightforward ‘let’s delete this’ has become more complex,” said Gail McElroy, a politics professor at Trinity College Dublin.

The other referendum question deals with what is known as the “family amendment.” The government wants to change the constitution to recognize that families can be founded on relationships other than marriage, such as unmarried parents or a single parent or grandparents.

“I want there to be a yes vote that says all families are equal,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in a recent interview. “It is about making sure that all families, in all their shapes and sizes in Ireland, are equal.” Varadkar is in a same-sex relationship but is not married.

More than 40 percent of children in Ireland are born outside of marriage.

Ireland’s Catholic bishops came out against the amendment, saying it “diminishes the unique importance of the relationship between marriage and family in the eyes of Society and State and is likely to lead to a weakening of the incentive for young people to marry.”

Other critics have raised concerns about the term “durable relationship,” which they say is unclear and could have unforeseen legal consequences.

Michael McDowell, a lawyer and former justice minister, was among those who said he would vote “no.”

“Everyone knows whether or not they are married,” he wrote in a post on his website. “Nobody knows who is or who is not in a ‘durable relationship’ unless a court decides in a disputed case that it is ‘durable.’ Nobody knows how and when a ‘durable relationship’ between two adults ends in the eyes of the law.”


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