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Analysis

Energy sucked out of referendum campaign before it starts with parties 'begrudging' Yes votes

Labour and Sinn Féín will meet next week to consider its position on the upcoming referendums.

THE STARTING GUN has been fired this week on the two referendums, with a Dáil debate including discussions on what a ’durable’ relationship’ is, ‘throuples’, care and women’s place in the home

There has been mounting anxiety in government circles about the outcome of the proposed constitutional referendums on deleting the reference to a woman’s role in the home and extending the definition of the family.

Concern about whether the public will engage in the referendums, due to be held on 8 March has been expressed, along with skepticism about the numbers that will turn up on the day to back the government’s proposed ‘Yes’ vote.

The mood was initially bolstered in government by a poll in the Irish Daily Mail which showed 60% of people support changing reference to a woman’s place in the home while 51% support change to the definition of family.

Alongside that however, the government parties have faced criticism from an array of organisations, as well as opposition parties, about a fudge of the referendum wording.

Opposition parties including Labour, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit and the Rural Independents group tabled amendments to the legislation, while Sinn Féin said this week it was reserving its position and seeking clarity on a number of issues.

There were accusations levelled at Equality Minister Roderic O’Gorman in the Dáil that the wording was a dilution of previous proposals. 

What we’re being asked to vote on

The wording approved by the Dáil this week, which will now go to the Seanad for sign off, seeks 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 family amendment, the 39th Amendment of the Constitution, proposes to amend Article 41.1.1 to insert the words “whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships”.

It also proposes the deletion of the words “on which the Family is founded” from Article 41.3.1.

The care amendment, the 40th amendment, proposes to delete Article 41.2 from the Constitution and insert an Article 42B with the following wording:

“The State recognises 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.”

Legislation to approve the referendum is due to be debated in the Seanad next week.

Many contributors to the Dáil debate earlier this week on the proposed wording set out that they really wanted to get behind these referendums.

However, they hit out at the government for not putting forward a proposal more in line with the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality or the Oireachtas Joint Committee’s report on Gender Equality which recommended that the constitutional definition of a family should be “not limited to the marital family” and that the State should “take reasonable measures to support care within and outside the home and family”.

‘Less than enthusiastic’ 

People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith said she is “less than enthusiastic” about what the government has put forward. 

She said the minister had made it very difficult for parties and people like her “who really do want to progress the equality agenda in this country” to give their support. 

The government has put forward a “very weak set of proposals for constitutional change”. 

There were also criticisms of the referendum being held on International Women’s Day, with some such as Independent TD Catherine Connolly, calling it “insulting”. 

A number of TDs in government told The Journal that they believe the referendum on expanding the definition of family will be carried by popular vote, stating that no one could fail to recognise the importance of ensuring that one-parent families along with families where parents are not married are given constitutional recognition as being a family. 

However, there is uncertainty in Leinster House about how the government has coupled care in the home with the removal of the reference of a women’s role in the home. 

Political party positions

So, having had the first debate on the wording, where do the political parties lie? 

The government parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party – are all advocating for a ‘Yes’ vote, of course. 

People Before Profit, though speaking out about their reservations, have also stated that it will back a ‘Yes’ vote. 

The Social Democrats are understood to be begrudgingly backing  a ‘Yes’ vote, with sources within the party stating that it is “the right thing to do”. The party, which tabled amendments to the legislation this week, believe the government’s wording doesn’t go far enough, but that a no vote would be damaging. 

The Labour Party is set to table its amendments again in the Seanad next week, and once the Seanad completes its consideration of the legislation, a meeting of the party’s executive board will take place to consider the matter before announcing the party’s intentions.

Sinn Féin did not table amendments, instead reserving its judgement, but will meet next week to carefully consider the wording of the final text and its position.

In a statement to The Journal, a party spokesperson said: 

“These are important referendums. Of course our constitution should reflect the diverse reality of life in modern Ireland and it’s right that outdated language should be updated. 

“Carers feel abandoned and let down by government. They need to see their rights strengthened and much more substantial supports delivered, whether they are a parent to a young child, someone caring for an elderly relative, or someone supporting a relative with a disability.

“A Sinn Féin government would stand up for carers and ensure they are finally supported and recognised for the crucial role that they play.

“We believe that the wording of the proposed changes could be improved and supported amendments in the Dáil this week accordingly. For instance, the language in the ‘family amendment’ is unclear and while the ‘carer’s amendment’ does not cause any harm it’s not clear how it actively benefits carers.

“It is disappointing that the government did not accept these sensible amendments and still have not given sufficient reasons as to why they have not reflected the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and Committee on the wording.”

During the debate on the legislation this week, Sinn Féin’s Sorcha Clarke said the two referendums “should be a positive moment in Irish society, one where we can reflect on the progressive social change and long overdue rights of those who provide care”.

“Instead, there is a concern among the parties on this side of the chamber and the groups that work with those who provide and receive care that the government has dragged its heels on this for so long that rejecting the words of the Citizens’ Assembly by providing for this alternative wording that is almost a watering down of the recommendations will cause real damage.

“It runs the risk of creating a referendum that will be a missed opportunity to deliver the genuine change they need and want to see,” she said. 

Pauline O’Reilly, Green Party Senator put forward the government’s argument this week on RTE’s The Late Debate, stating that the referendum on women in the home is about “removing sexit language from our constitution”, adding “our society is no longer sexist but our constitution does not reflect that”. 

“The change is about taking out that sexist language”, while also recognising that “care in the home is just as important as 1937 but it is care that can be done not just by women but by men and the state will support that”. 

She also highlighted that 42% of children in Ireland are born outside of marriage and those families are not recognised in our constitution which she said has a whole host of ramifications.

While most parties The Journal spoke to this week expressed frustration at the government for “making a mess of it” with the referendums, they stated that as the leading representative groups are advocating a ‘Yes’ vote, the politicians will too. 

National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWC) is expected to formally launch a “YesYes” referendum campaign next week.

One Family, Ireland’s national organisation for one-parent families, has also called for a Yes vote on both referendums.Family Carers Ireland are also calling for a “YesYes” vote, saying the referendum is a “potentially watershed moment in our history”. 

The overall feeling in Leinster House is that the government has missed a beat on the two referendums. The opportunity was there to have a rare occasion where the opposition stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the government in what could have been a very positive and enthusiastic campaign.

Instead, we have been left in a situation where political parties are begrudgingly voting yes.

The energy has been sucked out of the campaign before it has even started and that makes for a difficult position to start from in convincing the public to get behind the cause. 

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