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Ireland votes on Friday, 8 March. Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion Yes, the wording is tricky, but I am voting 'Yes, Yes' in the proposed referendums

UCD professor Ursula Barry outlines why she believes agreement to both amendments on Friday is a must.


REFLECTING ON OUR recent history, when strategic constitutional change has been enacted, fundamental social change has followed, for example on parenthood, children, adoption and abortion provision.

We can ensure that the referendums on Friday next, 8 March are no different. While the government has failed to detail what kind of legislation and social policy will be enacted once these amendments are passed, many civil society organisations have done just that.

At the very first meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly (CA) on Gender Equality in 2020, the citizens placed care centrally on the agenda. They identified that the undervaluing and poor recognition of care and caring activities are fundamental to gender inequality in Ireland.

Severe gendered penalties and wider inequalities of power are at the heart of our care systems experienced mainly by women in low-paid or unpaid care work and disabled people in receipt of inadequate care or supports. That means that carers and recipients of supports too often live on the edge, on the borders of low income and poverty.

The question of care

As the debate on the forthcoming referendums has unfolded, disability and gender equality concerns have often been set, one against the other. Care carries particular resonances for people with disabilities.

Disabled people have been systematically denied autonomy and have experienced enforced dependency in historical care systems — both in Ireland and globally.

The very notion of care, especially institutionalised care, carries stories of segregation, abuse and humiliation. And women with disabilities are often on the outer margins of those care systems. To achieve equality, we need to bring together this disability perspective on autonomy and support, without abandoning the feminist perspective on gendered inequalities in care.

In reality, we are all interdependent – that it is at the heart of family, community and human society. And some of us need more care or supports than others and at different times in our lives. Our lives are complex. I am a disabled woman and wheelchair user who has needed care at times, both inside and outside the family. But I have also been a care provider as my child grew into adulthood. No one goes through life without periods of dependency. Currently, neoliberal ideology regards individualism as something we are all supposedly striving towards. When dependence is highlighted it is frequently vilified, seen as a failure of the individual or the household, a drain on economic resources.

For those with disabilities, being the object of care can then be seen as undermining the very concept of individual independence. A positive concept of interdependence and social solidarity is simply outside the narrative.

Uncomfortable language

I don’t know anyone who is happy with the government’s wording in these referendums. By setting aside the thoughtful and simple wording put forward by the Citizens’ Assembly and Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality, the government has created confusion.

Everyone across the disability movement and women’s organisations wanted wording that recognised care in the home and the wider community, linked to strong supports for the autonomy of disabled people. And also wording that meant lone parents families, cohabiting couples and other diverse families would all be represented in the Constitution, by simply dropping the clause of the family based on marriage.

There are so many examples of clauses and amendments that would have meant for stronger, more radical change on care and the family. What we have is a process of compromised change. Despite some of my dilemmas, I have thought long and hard about this and I believe a Yes vote in both referendums is vital. I am also very conscious of the potential for a highly negative impact of a No vote.

I see these votes as stepping stones and an opportunity to argue for a comprehensive package on care. We need constitutional change, together with laws and policies, that explicitly recognise systems of both care and support. And we need a State that takes public responsibility for enhanced social investment in care and support systems. Some of the key policy changes needed: a decent pay structure for care workers; public responsibility for childcare and care for older people; significant investment in personal support systems; development of quality residential care; a statutory right to home care and disability supports; a universal old-age pension and the establishment of legal status for migrant domestic workers.

I will be voting Yes, Yes on Friday next, 8 March. If they pass, I will then be joining with others to continue the campaign for the kinds of legislative and social policy changes needed for greater equality and gender justice, for both carers and those receiving care as well as independence and autonomy for those accessing supports.

Ursula Barry is Associate Professor Emeritus at University College Dublin and a member of the Expert Advisory Committee to the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality 2020.

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