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two wallops

Analysis: Six reasons why the government is facing down the ballot of a big No-No

The result was clear as soon as the boxes were opened, but what happened?

IT WAS ALL over before the counting even started. 

As soon as the boxes were opened and the votes were being sorted, it was clear that Ireland’s latest referendums would be comprehensively defeated

It represents a significant bloody nose for the government and indeed all of the major parties in the Dáil who campaigned for a Yes-Yes. 

So what happened and how did this result come about?

The government rather took people for granted

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The push to remove the so-called ‘women in the home’ clause from the Constitution has been around for quite some time.  

The gendered language of Article 40.2 has long been accepted as being out of date, with various lengthy reports and conventions over the years concluding that it had to go. 

It was therefore seen as almost inevitable that it would be removed at the first opportunity. 

But while a simple deletion of the controversial statement might have been an easier sell, the desire to recognise care within the Constitution has proved more difficult to define.

Many will point to the Citizens’ Assembly wording and say that it’s more likely this would have been passed.

This wording said the State would be “obliged to take reasonable measures” to support care at home and in the community, rather than “strive” to support familial care, as was put to the people. 

Whether this is the case or not, there were a whole host of referendums this government has been mulling over holding, emigrant voting and a right to housing among them

Instead, it plugged for this one this one, thinking it was the most likely to pass. Holding it on International Women’s Day to boot. 

Referendums have to be won though and the government made a mistake in judging that people would simply accept any wording to confine the outdated ‘women in the home’ term to the past.

The Care wording was a lesson in dividing instead of uniting

Winning elections is all about building coalitions, whether that’s general elections or referendums. 

We saw that in the Eighth Amendment referendum, where a coalition of activist groups who’d long campaigned on women’s rights came together to work towards a political goal. 

It was they who swelled the numbers on marches and wore Repeal jumpers to force the issue centre stage. 

If the government believed that the Eighth Amendment and Marriage Equality referendums were won by the political parties, they forgot the crucial importance of keeping potential voters on side.

By wording the Care Amendment in a way that essentially pitted feminist and disability activists against one another they failed to learn from those successes. 

An insurgent campaign 

On the flip side, campaigns from groups opposed to either one or both referendums was particularly effective. 

Senator Tom Clonan plugged a focused argument about his own experience as a carer while Catherine Connolly TD gave an early indication that the debate wasn’t going to break down along traditional lines.  

Throughout the campaign, the building momentum of a Yes-No became apparent as disability advocates made clear their opposition to the Care amendment.

The Yes-No argument became the dominant one on social media as the vote neared, so much so that several politicians who had previously advocated for Yes-Yes switched sides.

Senator Michael McDowell seemed at one point to be running a one-man No-No campaign from the opinion pages of the Irish Times but his campaigning clearly had an effect.

Peadar Tóibín for Aontú was also a common voice on the No-No side in various media debates. 

Poor communication and confusion  

Family and Care Referendums-11_90700719 Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

No one should be saying that the electorate as a whole didn’t know what they were voting on, many people had a very clear view on how they felt. 

But it’s undeniable that more than any other referendum in recent times there was widespread confusion about what it was all about. 

Whatsapp groups around the country seemed to be filled with questions in recent days and journalists were often met with a shrug when they asked people what they thought. 

And no surprise either, it was all relatively confusing. It was supposed to be about ‘women in the home’ and women did not feature in the name of either vote. 

Instead, we got votes on Family and Care, with debate on the Care Amendment focusing on whether care was the responsibility of the family. Clear as mud. 

First comes the courting, then comes the durable relationship

It’s clear that the public weren’t convinced by the argument that it’s for the courts to decide what a durable relationship is. 

Justice Minister Helen McEntee argued in her TV debate with Senator Michael McDowell this week that the phrase is purposely vague so as not to leave any durable relationships out. 

But leaving it vague only served to bolster that argument that anyone and everyone might be in a durable relationship, some might not even know they’re in one. 

It was a tricky tightrope to argue on the one hand that throuples would not be recognised while at the same time arguing that a person may be in more than one durable relationship at any given time. 

Saying the courts will bring clarity to the situation didn’t exactly sound like the argument of someone who knew what they were asking of people. 

Did Leo Varadkar prove himself to be an electoral liability (again)?

PastedImage-61102 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on The Six O'Clock Show. Virgin Media TV Virgin Media TV

Since being chosen as Fine Gael leader in the summer of 2017, Leo Varadkar hasn’t exactly been electoral dynamite for the party. 

Despite some success in 2019 local and European elections, Fine Gael lost seats in the 2020 general election and has gone 0/5 in by-elections, including in Dublin Bay South, where the party has gone from two seats to zero.

Back in 2017 there was a hope among Fine Gael TDs that Varadkar would help deliver the socially progressive voters that won the Marriage Equality referendum.

This ignored the fact that Varadkar’s political positions could hardly be categorised as such and in recent years he’s only doubled down on positions that have seen him described as out of touch. 

The ‘Benefits Street’ comments, where he used a Dáil discussion on disability payments to criticise social welfare fraud, is one such incident. 

Varadkar had a similar gaffe during an outing during this referendum campaign when he appeared on Virgin Media’s Six O’Clock Show

Asked about the State’s responsibilities when it came to care, Varadkar suggested that it’s first and foremost up to families and that he himself will “make sure” to look after his own parents when they get older. 

Although Varadkar claimed it was a case of “classic” social media misrepresentation, his comments were the only moment that could be described as viral and were cited by many as the moment they made up their mind.

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