The two referendums to be held on March 8th seek to expand the protections that our Constitution affords, bringing many of the groups that have been traditionally marginalised in Irish society into the Constitution.
In recent weeks, we have seen attempts to muddy the waters in relation to the proposed constitutional amendments, the suggestion that this is rushed and would somehow be a leap into the unknown. In reality, what is proposed has been under consideration since the 1996 constitutional review group. The need for change has undergone extensive discussion through a Citizens’ Assembly and a specially established Joint Oireachtas Committee. What is proposed is a recognition of life as it exists for tens of thousands of our fellow citizens today. Far from being rushed, it is long overdue.
The Irish people will be asked two questions. The first is to expand the definition of family, recognising that marriage is not the only version of a family. The approach proposed is to acknowledge a more inclusive concept of family, in a positive, upfront way in Article 41.1.1 – specifying that family may be founded on “marriage, or on other durable relationships”.
Including the language on “durable relationships” means that one-parent families and long-term cohabiting couples will be recognised within the constitutional definition of family, and crucially, will mean bringing thousands of children and families into the constitutional protections afforded to a family. Durable relationships are relationships of strength, stability and commitment. They are the relationships that people we know are in, relationships we instinctively think of as a family, but relationships which, right now, are excluded from constitutional recognition because they are not based on a marriage.
Importantly, under the proposed amendment, the existing strong protection that is afforded to marriage in our Constitution in Article 41.4.1 will be retained –. as will be the ability of the State to make distinctions between marriage and other family forms. This latter point was confirmed by the Supreme Court in its decision in the O’Meara case only three weeks ago.
Some of the most marginalised families in Ireland in the past have been one-parent families, and the wording of Article 41 in our Constitution, as it exists at the moment, is another symbol of that marginalisation. The idea that it is extremist to acknowledge these families as just that – as families – is a throwback to a different era in Ireland. The failure to recognise other family forms in our Constitution created the climate where a concept like illegitimacy was maintained, unchallenged, for decades.
The second referendum is a proposal to remove Article 41.2 – the reference to the neglect of mothers’ duties within the home, and replace it with a new legal obligation on the State to support care within families. The reality of Article 41.2 is that it has delivered nothing for women in the ninety years since it was passed. The article has not so much been about supporting women in the home as telling them that is where they were expected to be. Much like the restrictive definition of “family”, Article 41.2 does not represent the lives and careers of women.
Many women of course do opt to raise a family at home, but the idea that mothers who choose to enter the workforce are in “neglect” of their “duties in the home” does not reflect what we know of modern Ireland, and it completely ignores the fact that today, women and men share in those caring roles.
What we do know about modern Ireland is that care is increasingly done by different people. How many people have cared for an elderly parent, or a family member with a disability? This kind of care happens every single day across Ireland, and as a country, we would be much poorer without that.
That is why the proposed amendment would recognise the role played by family in terms of support and care. Significantly, it will also stipulate that the State shall strive to support family care. This is a new legal obligation. The courts, as the judicial arm of the State, will be required to interpret and apply the Article as appropriate in cases where the provision of support for family care is an issue. This amendment isn’t just symbolic. The intention is that it will place an onus on this Government and all future governments to a progressive realisation of support for care within a family.
The amendment would represent a strong statement by the Irish nation. If passed, Ireland will be among the first countries globally to explicitly elevate care to a constitutional value at the heart of our nation’s founding document. It is a clear recognition that the State needs to do more to support care, those who give it and those who receive it.
The vote on March 8th presents us with an opportunity to finally consign the narrow view of families and the role of women to the past, and extend our Constitutional protection to those who deserve it.
Bunreacht na hÉireann as a document has withstood the test of time in terms of the rights and freedoms that it bestows upon us. However, those rights and freedoms haven’t always been given to everyone equally. That’s why, as a country, we had to vote to give separated people the right to remarry. We had to vote to give same-sex couples access to the institution of marriage. We had to vote to give women full autonomy over their bodies.
The vote on March 8th is no different. The Irish people are big enough and kind-hearted enough to understand that you can extend rights and protections to family and friends, without any diminution of your own rights.
Roderic O’Gorman is Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration, and Youth