We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

8 March

Martin and Steen trade barbs in Prime Time debate as referendum campaigns enter final days

The debate was chaired by Sarah McInerney on Prime Time.


TÁNAISTE MICHEÁL MARTIN and conservative barrister Maria Steen clashed on the wording of the upcoming referendums during a debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time this evening.

The debate covered many of the main issues that have arisen throughout the campaign. In a bad-tempered exchange towards the end of the programme, Martin accused Steen of having been a “prophet of doom” in several previous referendum campaigns and Steen said the Tánaiste had failed to do anything in his long political career to make it easier for mothers to stay at home.

On International Women’s Day, on 8 March, voters will be asked to decide whether they want to accept changes to the Irish Constitution relating to the provision of care and a woman’s place in the home. 

Voters are being asked if they want to:

  • amend Article 41 of the Constitution to provide for a wider concept of family (i.e. not one only based on marriage)
  • delete Article 41.2 of the Constitution to remove text on the role of women in the home, and insert a new Article 42B to recognise family care

The referendum concerning a wider concept of family was debated first. 

Steen said that every child is currently regarded as equal before the law under the Constitution regardless of the marital status of their parents and that the relationship between every parent and child is recognised as family.

“The government is attempting to sell this referendum to people on the basis that it’s going to do something for single-parent families,” she said.

She said that a previous Supreme Court judgement defined the term “durable relationship” as an intimate relationship akin to marriage. “If that’s the case, then single parents are not included in this government proposal and they have been misled by the Tánaiste and the government.”

But Martin argued that single-parent families are not currently recognised as a family under the Constitution.

“I think it’s a very reasonable thing to say that we should expand the definition of family to include many different family types. 42% of children born in 2022 were outside of marriage,” he said.

“I don’t know why anybody has any objection to recognising the single-parent family within the context of the Constitution and the definition of a family as one to encompass single-parent families.”

Screenshot (540) Tánaiste Micheál Martin on Prime Time. RTÉ RTÉ

The Tánaiste said the Constitution is a foundational document “of general principles and general standards” and single parents will “without question” be included under the proposed amendment, along with ”unmarried couples who have children and who are in long-lasting relationships”. 

He said Ireland had had a “bad history” with “terrible concepts around illegitimacy”, adding: “This is to finish that journey.”

He also claimed that there have been “numerous attempts” to try and confuse people over the wording of the referendums. 

Steen said that she recognises that there are lots of different family types in this “new modern Ireland that we live in”. She asked Martin if he would tell a man with two wives that he is not in a durable relationship. 

But Martin pointed out that polygamy is illegal in Ireland and has never been recognised under Irish law. 

Steen responded by saying that introducing a constitutional amendment “trumps legislation” and that legislation can be overruled and declared unconstitutional.


Touching on the care referendum, Steen said that while the government describes the current wording as outdated, she fails to see “how something that reflects the lived reality of women in Ireland today can be described as outdated”.

“The reality is that the majority of women do the majority of the work in the home.”

She said the Tánaiste had been in politics since she was in primary school and represents old Ireland.

She said he has “never done anything” to make it easier for mothers to stay at home with their children and was part of the government introduced tax individualisation, which she claimed “forced many mothers back into the workplace and made it all but impossible for parents to raise their children on one income”.

Screenshot (543) Barrister Maria Steen on Prime Time. RTÉ RTÉ

Steen said that as a mother of two daughters, she wants to retain the current wording for their sake. 

“Mothers shed their blood. We go through a kind of exquisite agony to bring our children into the world that no man will ever experience and this is a noble and an honourable thing, and it deserves to be acknowledged with gratitude in our Constitution.”

Martin said that the amendment recognises the unique bond between a family unit “that enables and facilitates care between everybody in the family and it’s gender neutral”.

“In my view, a woman’s life should be wherever that woman wants her life to be. It’s a woman’s choice. We shouldn’t be creating the view that her duties are in the home,” he said.

“I think we’re saying to younger women in society today that your role is not one that should be confined to the home. You should have a choice in that.”

Steen said that she agreed with Senator Tom Clonan when he said the care aspect was “a slap in the face for carers”. 

She deemed it a “political virtue-signalling exercise” and said that if it passes, carers “will still have no respite” and adults with disabilities “still won’t be able to live independently”. 

Asked if the word “strive” is too weak, Martin said there will still be an obligation on the State to support carers. 

He repeated the point that the Constitution is a general framework that does not specify where resources are allocated in each area. 

“People elect their public representatives to government and to parliament on the basis of prioritisation and so on of resources. For example, 25% of the education budget goes to special education now. 25 years ago, that was not the case. Progress has been made, but we need to make an awful lot more.”

Concluding the debate, Steen said she is urging everyone to vote no and to send “a clear message to this government and all future governments that they need to do better”. 

She said she would like to see an Ireland that “gives mothers a chance to be at home with their children if that’s what they want”, along with better support for carers and for persons with disabilities.

Inserting “uncertainty” into the Constitution about the nature of people’s personal relationships is going to be “a lawyer’s bonanza” because of the amount of litigation it will cause, she added. 

Martin accused Steen of being “a prophet of doom” in the divorce referendum and said her perspective has “scaremongered every single time”. Steen clarified that she did not campaign in the divorce referendum. 

He urged people to vote yes to “include children of different family types within the definition of the Constitution”, and to vote yes to “recognise care for the first time” and to have a wording “that is reflective of modern society in terms of women in society”. 

Opposing views

Prime Time also featured interviews with people from opposite sides of the debate who shared how they would be voting. 

Tommy Cooke, a dairy farmer on the Tipperary-Kilkenny border said that he would be voting no in the first referendum after a lot of consideration. 

“What they’re trying to do is so badly worded and actually could be very counterproductive in the end,” he said. 

“I think the Oireachtas should define what family means. I think they’re creating a huge vacuum because they’re going from a clear definition of family to something else.”

Breda Murray is a single parent of four children, two of whom were born when she was not married and two of whom were born when she was married. She said she would be voting yes in the referendum. 

“I have two children that are recognised by Constitution as my family which are the two from my marriage, and I have two children who are my older children who aren’t actually recognised as my family under the Constitution,” she said. 

On the care referendum, Lynsey O’Donovan, a mother of four and a carer to her son Jack, said she would vote yes as carers are currently not recognised in the Constitution. 

“I would like a yes vote to come in because it will recognise me as a carer and other carers. I know the wording isn’t perfect, but strive to help carers is better than what we’re getting at the minute,” she said. 

Alannah Murray, a disability advocate and law student, who is a wheelchair user, said she would be voting no in the care referendum. 

“I’ve always worried about what’s going to happen, who’s going to be in charge of my care and or the government to say that care is at the behest of families when disabled people desperately want to live independent lives, I feel it’s very problematic,” she said. 

“Disabled people are often very wary of the issue of care because we’ve always been talked about, and it’s always been about disabled people being passive participants, when really we should be consulted.”

She said the word strive “doesn’t oblige the State to do anything and without that obligation, the State won’t act because they’re not obliged to”. 

The Journal spoke to several people on Dublin’s Grafton Street this afternoon about the referendums, with the majority saying that they felt they had not heard enough to make a decision. 

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.