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Five reasons why the Yes side failed and the No campaign won the day

How the Government lost - and the No side won - the care and family referendums

As ballot boxes were opened around the country on Saturday morning, it quickly became clear that the proposed constitutional amendments on care and family were going to be defeated.

The proposals had the backing of the three Government parties as well as Sinn Féin, most of the Opposition and a range of well-known campaign groups. However, those endorsements, albeit qualified in several cases, counted for little in a campaign that failed to capture the attention of much of the public.

Where did it all go wrong?

It was rushed

While officials laboured over the wording of text to be put to votes in both referendums behind closed doors for months, when it came to more public consideration in the Dáil and Seanad, the process was viewed as a rushed affair.


Pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas was waived in an effort to fast-track the proposals, and the debate on the proposals was cut short through the use of the parliamentary guillotine.

Some campaigners felt the Government was too focused on the lure of holding the vote on International Women’s Day and a belief that Yes votes would have allowed Ministers to bask in the warm glow of the approval of the women of Ireland.

Instead, many voters felt bombarded with complicated and contradictory information over a short campaign that left many disengaged. In the lead-up to Friday’s vote, opinion polls indicated that the number of undecided voters was rising, which is rarely a good sign so close to the finish line.

In the postmortem to follow, the question will be asked: who in Government decided it was wise to hold the vote on International Women’s Day, and why was the Coalition in such a rush?

‘Two wallops’ for Government as No-No vote emerges strong

Listen | 31:39

For many, it didn’t go far enough

An early death knell for the care proposal came when Opposition politicians made it clear that their support was laced with reluctance. A lot of those involved in advocating for a Yes vote believed the proposal did not go far enough and that care within the community should have been recognised rather than limiting it to care within the home.

During the Dáil debate on the proposals, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said: “I come here today less than enthusiastic about this... The Government has done us all a disservice by coupling the deletion of – as I paraphrase it – ‘the woman’s place is in the home’ with the care question. It has done the whole project a big disservice.” Smith described campaigning groups as swallowing a “hard pill” in accepting the proposals because they were a “step in the right direction”.

That feeling of grudging support went right across the political spectrum.

In private, Government politicians groaned when asked about the referendums. “Not this again” was the prevailing sentiment of a lot of those who were supposed to be actively campaigning for change. Many Coalition politicians seemed to be keeping their heads down throughout the last four weeks. The Opposition was hardly champing at the bit either. In an Instagram post on polling day, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald wrote: “The most important thing is that you come out and have your say.”

Hardly a last minute rallying call.

No woman left behind?

Getting the support of the National Women’s Council of Ireland was key for the Government’s campaign, but schisms within feminist groups played out in the background. The council’s ambition, it says, is to foster an Ireland “where every woman enjoys true equality, and no woman is left behind”. The problem is that many women with disabilities – and men – felt left behind in the referendum debate.

Speaking privately, one Government figure who was fresh from canvassing this week said the arguments being put forward by Senator Tom Clonan had really cut through with the public. Clonan argued that the proposed article 42b “gives constitutional expression to an ableist view that disabled citizens must rely on family members for care – and deliberately excludes the right to an independent, autonomous life in the community”. His arguments resonated deeply with some, and he performed well in debates which gave further heft to the No campaign.

One young female voter who was active in recent referendums said she went to the polling booth intending to vote Yes-Yes. But she explained: “In the end, I couldn’t justify taking out something that would benefit me as a woman and trample all over the rights, even symbolic ones, of others.”

Politicians of all hues have felt the heat on this issue. Midway through the campaign, Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns told the Dáil: “The Social Democrats have opted to support both constitutional amendments because we have ultimately been left with a choice between leaving misogynistic language in the Constitution and replacing it with language that is an improvement, but should have gone much further. I acknowledge that there are people who disagree and are hurt by our decision. I wish to tell those people that I am listening.”

The Government was not proactive

In previous referendum campaigns, senior Government figures actively tackled the points being made by the opposing side. That sense of urgency seemed to be missing this time, exemplified in the early debate about throuples and polygamy descending into Dáil giggles.

More crucially, the No side put forward a long list of potential ramifications if there was a Yes vote in the family referendum, suggesting there could be implications around immigration, a hot topic in many parts of the country, and tax implications for farmers and others.

Throughout that time, the Government had advice from the Attorney General which made clear that polygamous arrangements would not come under the umbrella of “durable relationships” and that immigration was unlikely to be affected.

Furthermore, the Attorney General said there was little doubt that the care amendment would indeed place an onus on the State to support care within families. The Coalition parties refused to publish the advice, or even a summary of it. Instead it was leaked on the eve of the vote to The Ditch website, with headlines leading on legal uncertainty around how the words “strive” or the term “durable relationships” would be interpreted by the courts.

It fed directly into the “Don’t know? Vote No” school of thought. Figures such as Senator Michael McDowell, a former attorney general, and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín were instrumental in portraying the message that unintended consequences could follow. This appears to have struck a nerve.

Attention spans and social media

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar probably did not think an appearance on Virgin Media’s Six O’Clock Show in early March would result in controversy. But it did.

The following statement went viral on online platforms: “My experience of life, and I’m sure it’s most people’s experience of life – my parents brought me up. They cared for me. When they are old, I’m going to make sure they’re looked after. God forbid if something happened to either of my sisters, I’ll make sure that my nephews and nieces are looked after, that they have a home, they have an education. I don’t actually think that’s the State’s responsibility, to be honest. I do think that is very much a family responsibility, but families deserve the support of the State, and that’s really what this article will say, this new part of the Constitution.”

He was accused online of being “out of touch”, with some people viewing the comments as the Government shirking its responsibility.

Right after the clip cut off, however, he added: “But that doesn’t preclude us from doing more for people who are disabled, so a lot of people who I know who have disabilities, they want to be independent, they don’t want to dependent on their family in any way, and none of this change stops us from making that possible or investing in personal assistants and all of that.”

The Fine Gael leader has said he was misrepresented online, describing how he was represented as “classic social media”.

Undoubtedly, the wide dissemination of that clip had an impact, even if it was not the whole picture of what Varadkar said. This is the reality in which politicians operate now – a world where short attention spans are captured in short clips giving rise to outrage.