Irish vote to update constitution’s ‘women in the home’ clause gets complex

This year on International Women’s Day, the Irish are wrestling with questions over whether a woman’s place is still in the home and how to define a family, in a twin referendum on a constitution written in the 1930s.

What at first seemed like a simple decision of updating old-fashioned language around family and the role of women has become very complex, and it’s not at all clear which way the country will vote.

While there is widespread support for removing the outdated “women in the home” clause in the constitution, there is concern over what to replace it with. The second referendum will then tackle how to define a family. Polls opened Friday at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. Results are expected midday Saturday.

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The part of the Irish constitution, which dates to 1937, that has attracted the most attention is a clause that says that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, has said that there are parts of the constitution that have “just aged badly.” The “women in the home” clause, she said, was “no longer suited to an Ireland anxious to promote gender equality.”

In recent years, Ireland, once deeply conservative and among the poorest in Western Europe, has emerged as a socially liberal country. In 1995, Ireland voted to legalize divorce; in 2015, it was same-sex marriage; and in 2018, Ireland overturned its abortion ban.

At first it seemed that a simple rewording of the constitution would be a slam dunk for the government. While some polls have shown a lead for a “double yes” vote, analysts said that the outcome is far from certain given the confusion and criticism and the possibility of low voter turnout.

Tomas Finn, a lecturer in history at the University of Galway, said there had been a “desire to remove this language from the constitution for quite a long time, but the question became, what should replace it?”

He said that the government may have been “more successful to just delete it, because now it’s controversial, or at least there are concerns about the language proposed to replace it.”

Disability activists, lawyers and the Catholic Church are advocating for a “no” vote for the women clause because the new language introduces ideas about family members’ responsibility for caring for one another, and they say that the proposed changes raise concerns over care, disability and taxation.

The first proposed change is known as the “family amendment” and is presented to voters on a white slip of paper. This involves the definition of the family. The government wants to expand it beyond marriage to include those in “durable relationships.” This change, the government says, would recognize that families can be founded on relationships other than marriage, such as unmarried parents or a single parent or grandparents.

“I want there to be a yes vote that says all families are equal,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in a recent interview. “It is about making sure that all families, in all their shapes and sizes in Ireland, are equal.” Varadkar is in a same-sex relationship but is not married.

More than 40 percent of children in Ireland are born outside of marriage.

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Critics have raised concerns about the term “durable relationship,” which they say is unclear, and that the vagueness of the term could have unforeseen legal consequences.

Michael McDowell, a lawyer and former justice minister, is among those who said he would be voting “no” in this referendum.

“Everyone knows whether or not they are married,” he wrote in a post on his website. “Nobody knows who is or who is not in a ‘durable relationship’ unless a court decides in a disputed case that it is ‘durable.’ Nobody knows how and when a ‘durable relationship’ between two adults ends in the eyes of the law.”

The second proposed change is known as the “care amendment” and is presented to voters on a green ballot paper. In this one, the government seeks to delete the text that says that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.” This text would be replaced with a passage that says the state will “strive” to support “the provision of care by members of a family to one another.”

Disability campaigners have said that the replacement text suggests that responsibility for caring for dependents lies chiefly within the family. They argue that it should be the responsibility of the state to look after all of its citizens equally.

“What started out as a straightforward ‘let’s delete this,’ has become more complex,” said Gail McElroy, a politics professor at Trinity College Dublin.

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