Concerns about Government’s approach to wording of equality referendums

Ivana Bacik TD
14 December 2023
  • Divergence from the wording produced through the extensive consultation process of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality and Special Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality

Speaking on Government legislation to call a referendum on constitutional recognition and definitions of ‘care’ and the ‘family’, Labour Leader and former Chairperson of the Special Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality Ivana Bacik TD said that her Party is considering its position on the proposed referendums, subject to amendment of the wording in the New Year.

She outlined her party’s concerns in respect of the wording of the Government’s proposed two constitutional amendments.

Deputy Bacik said:

“As Chairperson of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Gender Equality, I have researched and engaged extensively with the constitutional text that is now under scrutiny and which the Government is proposing to amend.

“It is because of my long involvement with this process, that I am so deeply concerned about the Government’s proposed text. I know that I am joined in that concern by many civil society groups and unions too.

“This is a shame – and a missed opportunity by the Government – given that there was such an extensive consultation process between the Citizens’ Assembly and Special Oireachtas Committee.

“Losing that buy-in from those groups will render the Government’s short timeframe for the holding of a campaign even more ambitious.

“Upon the launch of our final report in December 2022, our Committee called on the Government to move swiftly to call the necessary referendum, which we said should take place before the end of 2023. I

“ndeed, the Taoiseach said in March 2023, on International Women’s Day, that the referendum would take place in November 2023. Regrettably, a long and unexplained delay followed – and it was only in late November 2023 that we finally received confirmation that the referendum would proceed next March; and only last week, in early December, that we finally had sight of the wording. That wording is deeply disappointing.”

Speaking in relation to the proposed text to Article 41, which provides that ‘the State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack’, she continued:

“The need to extend constitutional protection to families, other than those based on marriage, has had a severe impact upon some families.

“This was illustrated by the very tragic case of Johnny O’Meara, a father of three from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, whose partner Michelle Batey sadly died from cancer in 2021 – they had been together for 20 years.

“Like over 150,000 other couples across Ireland, Johnny and Michelle were cohabiting and had not married. Both had been working, both paying PRSI and were both contributing to the system.

“Yet, when it mattered most, Johnny was not legally entitled to the support of the Widower’s Pension upon Michelle’s death, because they were not married. And this position has been reinforced by the constitutionally restrictive definition of family as based upon marriage.

“This is particularly unfair, because cohabiting parents are assessed as a unit if either of them apply for social welfare support.

“Johnny continues to fight his case in the Supreme Court, having been championed by Deputy Alan Kelly and others. His case, and the treatment of unmarried couples, is a stain on Irish society. Having reviewed the Government’s proposed change to Articles 41.1 and 41.3.1 I am seeking the Minister’s clarification that the new text would protect those who find themselves in the awful situation that Johnny and his three children have had to face. And I am concerned at the use of the phrase ‘durable relationships’ proposed by Government.”

Speaking in relation to the proposed text to Article 41.2, Deputy Bacik again criticized how the Government’s proposed text departs from the text recommended by the Special Oireachtas Committee, saying,

“We are all agreed on the need to amend Article 41.2. It includes sexist and outdated references to women’s and mothers’ life and duties in the home, and does not recognise the various forms of care, both inside and outside the home, both paid and unpaid, carried out by both men and women, which is so vital to Irish society.

“However, having departed significantly from the recommendations of both the Citizens’ Assembly and Special Oireachtas Committee, the Government’s proposed text on care is highly restrictive; it would confine constitutionally protected care to that provided ‘by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them’.

“This exclusionary definition of care will further emphasise the undervaluing of care.

“The Government’s proposed texts have received, at best, lukewarm support from civil society groups that might have been expected to show an enthusiastic welcome for this announcement.

“We in Labour will be putting down amendments to both Bills at Committee stage to reflect the agreed text that we had proposed on the Gender Equality Committee. We hope to work with others to ensure that we will make the long overdue constitutional change to Article 41 – for a more equal Ireland. However, we reserve the right to take a position on the referendum campaign itself once Oireachtas debates on the Bills have concluded.”

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