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Irish voters resoundingly reject proposals to redefine family, undermine motherhood

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Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar heads to cast his vote at Scoil Treasa Naofa in Dublin in a March 8, 2024, referendum to redefine family and delete wording on stay-at-home mothers in the Irish Constitution. (OSV News photo/Reuters, Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Michael Kelly writes for OSV News from Dublin

The Irish prime minister, known as the Taoiseach, has conceded that his government was defeated “comprehensively” when voters rejected amendments to the constitution that the country’s bishops warned would have weakened supports for marriage and undermined motherhood.

Despite opinion polls showing a clear majority in favour of the government plan to widen the definition of the family to include other “durable relationships” as well as marriage, when votes were counted on 9 March, 67.7 per cent of citizens rejected the amendment, while 32.3 per cent supported it.

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A second amendment proposed removing a provision from the 1937 document that said women should not be forced by economic necessity to take a job “to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

Again, polls showed it was likely to pass, but this proposal was rejected by an even wider margin, 73.9 per cent to 26.1 per cent. It is the highest-ever “no” vote in Irish referendum history.

The amendments had been supported by all political parties except the small Aontú party, which only has one member in the national parliament, known as the Oireachtas.

Speaking at the national count center in Dublin Castle on 9 March, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he was disappointed by the results. However, he stated, “The people were asked questions, the debates happened, the arguments were heard.”

“The public comprehensively took the view they did not want to make changes to the constitution that we proposed. We accept that, we respect that and we take responsibilities for the results,” he said.

The referenda were held on 8 March, designed to coincide with International Women’s Day, and the results were announced on 9 March, just a day before Ireland traditionally celebrates Mother’s Day.

David Quinn, director of the pro-marriage think-tank the Iona Institute, told OSV News that the rejection of both proposals were “the best possible present ahead of Mother’s Day.”

He said that “the government asked voters to remove the word ‘mother’ from the constitution and they answered with a resounding ‘no.’ They also rejected by a huge margin the attempt to foist the extremely nebulous term ‘durable relationships’ on the constitution.”

A person wearing a costume holds a sign March 9, 2024, opposing a March 8 referendum to delete wording on stay-at-home mothers in the Irish Constitution. The sign-holder and others were attending the Friends of Ted Festival, or TedFest, an annual convention for fans of the beloved sitcom “Father Ted.” The proposal to change wording about mothers and a second one to redefine the family were resoundingly rejected by voters. (OSV News photo/Reuters, Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Maria Steen, a Catholic lawyer who campaigned against both proposals, described the result as “a great victory for common sense.”

She said it is also a “rejection of a government that seems more concerned with social media plaudits than actually getting on with the business of governing the country.”

Steen described the results as “expression by the Irish people of gratitude and of love — gratitude to women for the work that they do in their homes, that is often unseen and unsung.”

“Gratitude to mothers for the unique and irreplaceable role that they play in their children’s lives, and in the lives of their families, and a recognition of the special place that marriage has in our constitution and that they want to retain there,” she said, speaking to OSV News at the count center.

Brandon Scott, a representative for the only political party to oppose the proposals, Aontú, said the lack of political opposition to the referendum in light of the public rejection is “a damning indictment of how politics has become inaccessible for so many.”

“I’m delighted that the voters have correctly understood that this was a campaign marked by government virtue signaling that was not going to make a difference to the bread-and-butter issues affecting ordinary struggling citizens,” he told OSV News.

The government spent nearly $22 million running the referendum. Ahead of the poll, in a pastoral letter, the country’s Catholic bishops had warned that the amendments could weaken the incentive for young people to get married.

The bishops stopped short of call for a “no” vote on either proposal, but in a statement read at Masses the weekend before the vote, they said the family is the foundational cell of society and is essential to the common good because it is based on “the exclusive, lifelong and life-giving public commitment of marriage.”

The prelates had warned that the second amendment would have had “the effect of abolishing all reference to motherhood in the Constitution” and left “the particular and incalculable societal contribution” that mothers in the home have made, and continue to make, in Ireland unacknowledged.

Adopted in 1937, Ireland’s Constitution has been subject to proposed amendments 40 times, 20 of those proposed amendments in its first 63 years, and 20 more since the year 2000.

In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by way of a popular vote when the constitution was amended by 62 per cent in favour of it to 37 per cent opposed. In 2018, voters opted to remove the right to life of unborn children from the constitution, legalising abortion by a margin of 68 per cent to 33 per cent.

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