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If the care referendum is such a progressive change, why was the process such a travesty?

Even if the Government’s wording were not so wretched, there would be good grounds to vote against it in protest at how it was created

Easy listening is music for people who don’t like music. And the wording of the referendum on care is social democracy for people who don’t like social democracy.

This is a constitutional proposal so tepid that even those urging a Yes vote use the language of minimal movement. The lead Government minister, Roderic O’Gorman, calls it a “significant step”. The National Women’s Council calls it “a step in the right direction”. It’s one small step for the Government but God forbid we should make a giant leap for womankind.

The rallying cry on these banners is Ah sure, it’s better than nothing.

To understand why we are faced with such an underwhelming choice, we have to stand back and consider the strange shape of Irish politics. The referendum on care is a symptom of the current governing ethic – one in which right-of-centre parties have to do left-of-centre things.


Irish society is now firmly social democratic. It has become so for profound cultural, demographic, social and economic reasons.

The big cultural shift is the breaking of the hegemony that had dominated the State – the tight alliance of Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church. Demographically, Ireland is experiencing a very rapid catch-up after the long depredations of famine and mass emigration. Socially, the population has become both urbanised and highly educated. And the huge growth of the private sector economy has created an undeniable imperative for a greatly expanded State to provide infrastructure, housing, healthcare and education.

What we have, then, is a very broad consensus on the need for classic social democratic policies. Most people want to see an active State that builds houses, creates equal access to health and education, works to eliminate poverty and supports both those who need care and those (mostly women) who provide it.

But we have a ruling political culture in which social democracy is not a passionate cause. It’s what the main political parties have stumbled into for want of a better ideology. Fine Gael identifies as centre-right, Fianna Fáil as nationalist and centrist, and Sinn Féin as nationalist and “left populist”. Parties that are out and proud as social democrats struggle to attract more than 10 per cent of the vote.


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Irish politics is thus dominated by what we might call reluctant progressivism. Our leaders mostly come from a species adapted to be successful in a habitat where conservative social and economic ideas gave them an evolutionary advantage. But they now have to survive, like urban foxes, in a radically different environment.

This is why the care referendum has been so watered down that there is only a homeopathic trace of its original intentions. It’s ended up as a tincture of social democracy in a lukewarm bath of 1930s Catholic social teaching.

What did “the Irish people” want for this referendum? We had a mechanism for finding this out: a citizens’ assembly. It voted overwhelmingly for a wording that “obliges the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community”. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality unanimously supported a similar wording.

This was the social democratic consensus in action. It was a recognition that care is not just about love in the home – it’s also about the rights of the people who need it and how society enables them to lead dignified lives as equal citizens.

There was nothing in this wording that would interfere with the right of governments to make decisions about the allocation of public resources – “reasonable measures” leaves plenty of blanks for governments to fill in with their own policies and programmes. And yet the Government moved in mysterious ways to make sure that this social and political consensus for progressive change was turned into a restatement of conservative doctrine – which is that family carers support society and not the other way around.

Its wording keeps care behind closed doors, and does the same for those who need it. As the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac) has pointed out, the only consideration of people with disabilities in the Constitution would be “an implicit reference to them as the subject of family care”. John Charles McQuaid would have heartily approved.

Even if the Government’s wording were not so wretched, there would be good grounds to vote against it in protest at the process of its creation. The Government has never sought to explain why it shredded the careful deliberations of both citizens and parliament.

It has hidden behind legal privilege, with O’Gorman stonewalling that “we are not able to provide legal advice from the Attorney General”. Requests under Freedom of Information for minutes of the Interdepartmental Group that teased out the wording have been refused. And the wording was rushed so fast through the Oireachtas that a whole group of amendments was not even put to a vote.

If this is such a progressive change, why was it bundled through the legislative process in dark glasses and a hoodie like a criminal defendant avoiding the cameras outside the court? This has been a travesty of democratic consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.

What it gives the people is a choice between “better than nothing” and nothing at all. We can have the current explicitly sexist wording about “woman” and her “life within the home”, or we can have an implicitly sexist version of the same basic sentiment, which is that care is essentially a family matter and thus, in effect, mostly a job for women. It’s Model T politics: we can have any progressive change we like so long as it does not oblige the State to honour in practice the dignity of all citizens.

Social democracy is not a destination that can be reached with baby steps in the right direction – especially not in a country that is suffering all the consequences of its failure, over the generations, to create a coherent welfare state. It’s a huge choice that demands boldness and conviction. The Government invites us instead to do the equivalent of “liking” it on social media: I heart equality.