HomeWorldIrish voters overwhelmingly reject proposed changes to constitution

Irish voters overwhelmingly reject proposed changes to constitution

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Ireland has overwhelmingly rejected proposed changes to references on family and women in its constitution, delivering a rebuke to a government that had urged voters not to take a “step backwards”.

Voters repudiated the family referendum with 67% voting “no”, and buried the care referendum in an even bigger landslide of 74%.

“The family amendment and the care amendment referendums have been defeated – defeated comprehensively on a respectable turnout,” said the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, on Saturday, hours before the full results were announced.

The scale of rejection spelled humiliation not just for the government but also opposition parties and advocacy groups who had united to support a “yes-yes” vote.

Critics said they ran a lacklustre, confusing campaign that perplexed voters and alienated progressive allies – a contrast to the seismic 2015 same-sex marriage referendum and 2018 abortion referendum that underscored Ireland’s secular, liberal transformation. Turnout on Friday was 44%, a sharp drop from 64% in 2018.

The government had billed the votes – held on Friday to coincide with International Women’s Day – as opportunities to embed inclusivity and equality in a constitution dating from 1937.

The referendums proposed changing article 41. The family amendment proposed widening the definition of family from a relationship founded on marriage to “durable relationships” such as cohabiting couples and their children. The care amendment proposed replacing a reference to a “mother’s duties in the home” with a clause recognising care provided by family members.

On the eve of the vote Varadkar said “no” votes would be a “step backwards” that would send the wrong message to unmarried couples and maintain “very old-fashioned language” about women.

Soon after ballot boxes were opened it was clear that appeal had foundered, with “no” votes piling up in Dublin and across the country. The yes campaign mustered just 32% support for the family referendum and 26% for the care referendum.

Few claimed it was a conservative backlash. Some feminist and other progressive groups had urged “no” votes, calling the proposals vague or insipid.

The Lawyers For No group criticised the proposals’ wording and lack of legislative scrutiny and warned of unintended effects. “I trust individual voters. They looked at what was being put before them and they said ‘no’,” said Michael McDowell, a senator and former justice minister who was part of the group. “This is an emphatic repudiation of what I think was unwise social experimentation with the constitution.”

Some worried that widening the definition of family could affect rules on tax and citizenship. Others said expanding the burden of care from women to the whole family elided the state’s responsibility.

The defeat embarrassed the government and prompted calls for prominent campaign figures such as the children’s minister, Roderic O’Gorman, to resign. But the result is not expected to destabilise the ruling coalition of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

Eamon Ryan, the Green party leader and transport minister, said there would be no attempt at another referendum before the next election. “The next government will have to come back to this and consider the campaign and what were the arguments that merited a ‘no’ vote in both cases.”

Opposition parties also faced accusations of misjudging the county’s mood. The Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said her party was “very much” in touch with public sentiment and blamed defeat on the government. “They didn’t collaborate, and they failed to convince.”

The Labour leader, Ivana Bacik, said the government had ignored alternative wording proposed by the legislature’s gender equality committee and then ran a lacklustre campaign.

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