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Friday 29 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
# referenda
'Let the public decide': What's happening with all these referendums promised by government?
Referendums on “women’s place in the home” and “blasphemy” were included in the Programme for Government.

File Photo Enda Kenny today becomes Fine Gael's longest serving Taoiseach Leon Farrell / Leon Farrell / /

For an amendment to be made to the Irish constitution, a referendum must be held.

In the Programme for Government, the Fine Gael-led minority government pledged to hold a number of referendums during its term on a variety of topics.

To date, however, we have no date set for any referendum.

So, with the government just after celebrating its first year, had a look at the progress (or lack thereof) being made on the promised referendums.

The Eighth Amendment

The issue that presented itself most often for debate in the last few years is the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, guaranteeing the right to life of the unborn.

Despite its dominance in public discourse, the Programme for Government mentions the Eighth Amendment only once:

We will establish a Citizens’ Assembly, within six months, and without participation by politicians, and with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues over an extended time period.
We will ask the Citizens’ Assembly to make recommendations to the Dáil on further constitutional changes, including on the Eighth Amendment.

As we have seen, the Citizens’ Assembly considered the issue of the Eighth Amendment at length and decided that legislating for abortion is something that the Oireachtas must do.

citizens assembly Sam Boal / Citizens' Assembly chairperson Mary Laffoy at the recent vote on Eighth Amendment recommendations. Sam Boal / /

In other words, the government set up the Citizens’ Assembly to provide it with recommendations on what should be done and, while the assembly did indeed make a number of recommendations, those suggestions will require the government to act on them.

However, if we were to take the government on its pledges in the Programme, it never explicitly said it would hold a referendum on the Eighth.

Recent statements from across Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil show that there’s little willingness from these parties to provide their own views on the matter, and a lack of political will to tackle the issue head-on is a criticism made by both pro-life and pro-choice groups.

In perhaps the best indication to date, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has said that said a referendum on the Eighth Amendment on the Constitution should be held next year.


In the Programme for Government, pledges were made to hold referendums on Article 41.2.1 on a woman’s life in the home and Article 40.6.1 on blasphemy, among others.

In case you’d forgotten, the Defamation Act 2009 prohibits the utterance or publication of “blasphemous matter”. As for what constitutes blasphemy, the legislation defines a person as saying or publicising “blasphemous matter” if:

He or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, or
He or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerns, to cause such outrage.

This topic hit the news again just this week, after it emerged that a complaint had been made to An Garda Síochana about comments made by TV presenter and writer Stephen Fry on an RTÉ show.

During the show, Fry told host Gay Byrne that he believed God is “quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish”.

Speaking on the matter, Health Minister Simon Harris called Ireland’s blasphemy law “silly” and said he’d like a referendum on the issue in the near future.

So when is a referendum likely to happen?

We asked the Department of Justice, who had this response:

Preliminary consultations and preparatory work have been undertaken. Further work will be necessary to prepare a Referendum Bill and a Bill to amend the current legislative provision for the offence of blasphemy (contained in the Defamation Act 2009), dependent on the priority and time frame to be decided by Government.
A decision on the scheduling of the blasphemy referendum will be made by Government in the light of its Legislative Programme, subject to completing the necessary further consultations and preparing the necessary Referendum Bill and the accompanying amending legislation regarding the statutory offence of blasphemy.

So, we can glean from this statement that no date has been set and is unlikely to be anytime soon, given the “further consultations” required and the necessary referendum bill to be drafted.

And what about the referendum on “women’s place in the home”?

Article 41.2 of the constitution states:

41.2.1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
41.2.2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

As this document points out, reports as far back as 1993 have recommended that this provision of the constitution be deleted or amended.

The UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the law “perpetuates traditional attitudes toward the restricted role of women in public life, in society and in the family”.

It likely that we’ll be getting a vote on this? There is a bit more surety here, but no hint of a timeframe from the government.

The Department of Justice told “There is a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government that a referendum will be held on this provision.

Taking account of this, proposals will be brought forward, for the Government’s consideration, for a Bill to amend the Constitution.

Other promised referendums, on topics such as a Universal Patent Court and constitutional standing for the Ceann Comhairle are also yet to make significant progress.

We will almost certainly have a referendum on whether the Irish abroad can vote in presidential elections, following an announcement from the Taoiseach, but, again, no date has yet been set.

Read: This government is a year old but what has it actually achieved?

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