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Referendum on women’s place in the home delayed after committee vote

The Oireachtas Justice Committee has voted for pre-legislative scrutiny of the removal of the women in the home reference.

Image: Shutterstock/DGLimages

THE REFERENDUM ON whether to remove the reference to women in the home from the Constitution is to be delayed.

Today, the Oireachtas Justice Committee has given the green light for pre-legislative scrutiny of the women in the home reference, meaning there will now not be enough time to hold the referendum on 26 October.

A member of the committee told TheJournal.ie that “it is a really important issue and we want to give it fair consideration”.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has expressed his regret that the referendum will not proceed on 26 October.

In a statement, the department said the decision by the committee to schedule pre-legislative hearings means there will not now be sufficient time for Oireachtas consideration of legislation and for the Referendum Commission to do its work before a vote on 26 October.

The referendum was expected to be held at the end of October, on the same day as thepresidential election and the referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution.

However, the Dáil’s business committee agreed that to allow for a referendum the Bill must go through pre-legislative scrutiny.

Deletion of women in the home reference

Concerns have been raised about the proposal for a straightforward deletion of the reference to women in the home in the Constitution.

The government decided to proceed with a proposal to delete the wording, despite concerns expressed by the Constitutional Convention and the Justice Department.

It had been suggested that the clause should be amended rather than deleted and that a gender-neutral clause or a reference to women caring in the home should be included.

Given the contention on the issue, the business committee refused to grant a request to waive the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill which allows for a referendum (which is regularly requested by ministers)

The Bill was referred to the Justice Committee, which met today to consider the issue. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan had urged the committee to meet earlier in the summer due to the tight deadline to get the referendum wheels in motion. However, it is understood that today was the earliest day the committee could meet.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

The pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill will mean it is too late for the establishment of the Referendum Commission before the proposed date of the end of October.

Minister Flanagan said in a statement this afternoon:

I very much regret that on the occasion of the centenary of women achieving the right to vote in Ireland, the Irish people will not have an opportunity to remove Article 41.2 from our Constitution. 
I believe the Article, which seeks to define where women belong in Ireland as being in the home carrying out duties, is not just sexist and reductive, but completely at odds with the Government’s gender equality policies. 
The Constitution doesn’t seek to define the place of men. I believe it should not seek to define the place of women. To me, this is a straightforward proposition and after many decades of inaction, the time has come for the people to exercise a view on the retention or removal of the Article.

He added that he is “very disappointed that the referendum cannot now proceed on 26 October” but added that he and Minister David Stanton will continue to work to advance gender equality and remove the structural and cultural barriers which discriminate against women in this country. 

“I look forward to receiving the Committee’s recommendations in due course.”

In a bid to convince members of the committee to allow the referendum to proceed as planned, the minister wrote to all TDs and senators who sit on the committee over the weekend. 

He told the committee members that the Taoiseach is committed to requesting the next Citizens’ Assembly consider the policy area of care, which is the issue of concern with the removal of the women in the home reference for some.

In the letter, Flanagan said that he believes the policy area of care “requires comprehensive analysis in its own right”.

“I have already spoken to many of you and I know that issues around care and carers have become part of the discussion about Article 41.2,” he said. 

 “With this referendum, the government is proposing the removal of a discriminatory stereotype about women’s role in society from our Constitution. 

In terms of the policy area of care, we believe that this requires a comprehensive analysis in its own right. The Taoiseach has committed to requesting the next Citizen’s Assembly to consider the policy area of care. 

Work on the establishment of that Assembly will commence this Autumn, according to Flanagan. 

‘Referendum could not take place this year’ 

Flanagan also said that he is “gravely concerned” that the window of opportunity to hold a referendum may be rapidly closing. 

“The Referendum Commission has indicated that it needs to begin working on the referendum proposal immediately,” he said. 

While the government attaches great importance to the pre-legislative scrutiny process, unfortunately, in relation to this proposal and the related Bill, should a period of pre-legislative scrutiny take place later in September, this would effectively mean that the referendum could not take place this year. 

Having referenced that this year marks 100 years since women in Ireland obtained the right to vote earlier in his letter, Flanagan added: “That would be most regrettable, given the significance of the centenary we are celebrating.” 

Despite the minister’s letter, the majority of the committee members believe the impact of removing the clause must be investigated. The chair of the committee, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Senator Frances Black, and Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan are understood to have been in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny. 

Earlier this week, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald accused the government of trying to “press gang” the committee into progressing with the referendum.  

What next? 

Ó Caoláin said invitations will be issued to interested stakeholders in the issue, and work will begin on the scrutinising the clause on 19 September. 

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