Strong NO rumbling from the voting booths, Irish Referenda defeated

Two Referenda to remove sexist language in the Irish Constitution resulted in a low turnout and a very resounding rejection: what led to such outcome? what are the lessons and consequences?

Two constitutional referenda took place on 8 March 2024 in Ireland. Citizens were asked to vote on changes on the Family Amendment (39th in the Constitution) and the Care Amendment (40th in the Constitution). In the Navigator typology, Democracy International classifies such instrument used when the legal status quo of a particular matter is asked to be changed by the law-making institutions as a mandatory referendum.

Eligible voters are all Irish citizens, aged 18 or above, resident in the Republic of Ireland, and listed in the register of electors. The questions they were asked on the ballot papers were to vote YES or NO to: (1) Modify the definition of family as recognised by the State in the 39th  Amendment from solely founded on marriage to also on other durable relationships; and (2) Modify the 40th Amendment by deleting Article 41.2.1 and 41.2.2, focused on the importance of the role of women concerning “life within the home” and “duties in the home”, and by introducing a new article that highlights the fundamental role of carers within Irish homes with no gender specification. Therefore, the mandatory referenda pertained a change at the Constitutional level that would only mirror a reality that has already being evolving in the Irish society since 1937, when the amendments were written. 

Many positions were taken in regards to the questions posed in the ballots, both at the social and political level. The stance backed by most political parties, the National Women’s Council, Family Carers Ireland, One Family, and many others, concerns the YES-YES vote, hence a support to both proposals. The only political party opposing both referenda was Aontú, a position shared also by some independent TDs (Teachta Dála, members of the lower house of parliament) and Senators, as well as by public representatives of the Church. However, a very prevailing view on the matter has been a YES-NO vote. This stance sees the support of the proposal on the 39th Amendment – because the wording of its articles has been generally considered exclusionary and unreflective of current realities – and a rejection of the proposal concerning the 40th Amendment. The argument towards the Care Amendment is that whilst the proposal suggested a positive modification of an anachronistic and sexist wording, it also lacked reference to any rights of care-givers and care. It also omitted an operative clause towards State obligations, as it did not present responsibility of carers outside the home or in the community. 

Nevertheless, most predictions had foreseen a positive response to both referendum questions – as an Irish Time survey showed a week prior 8 March 2024. The outcome, however, was substantially different. With a turnout of 44.4 per cent, the referenda were defeated with 67.7 per cent of votes against changing the definition of family, and 73.9 per cent against changing the so-called “women-in-the-home” article.

The referenda were initiated as a consequence of the recommendations submitted by a Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality that took place in 2021, and the following presentation of relative referendum questions by a Special Joint Oireachtas Committees held in December 2022. But, if the Citizens’ Assembly meant to reflect and represent the Irish society, why didn’t the referenda pass forward? 


What led to a “very resounding NO-vote”?

One of the main reasons behind such a strong rejection towards the referenda was mostly the lack of information amongst voters. As Prof. Jane Suiter stated in her interview for Democracy International, it was highly likely that most Irish citizens followed the logic “if you don’t know you vote no, because then you get the status quo and you know what the status quo is”. Prof. Suiter presented such an argument because of the political developments that led to the voting day. Because the Citizens’ Assembly was held online due to Covid-19 restrictions, its outcome and demands did not gain sufficient attention and media coverage. This has been followed by a convergence of very little discussion from political representatives – all in consensus to have the referenda – and a number of statements from opposing independent TDs and civil society organisations. The argumentations brought up against the referenda managed to raise enough doubts amongst Irish citizens to question the actual socio-economic and legal consequences of the changes proposed. 

These matters were also brought up by Ph.D. Roslyn Fuller during her conversation with us, who also agreed that the “very resounding NO-vote”, has been the result of very little information put forward to the population. As she argued, if one has an almost full consensus amongst the political parties, there will be no discussions and no clear sides for citizens to reflect upon and for politicians to campaign on. At the same time, Ph.D. Fuller specified that whilst Irish citizens do live in accordance with the proposed changes, they were not provided with sufficient information regarding the rationale behind changing the gendered wording of the constitution when the status quo does not force sexist practices. 

On top of these issues, both interviewed experts pointed out that the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations and demands were not fully complied with, as for example, addressing the issue of State responsibility towards carers in the wider community and not solely within the home. As Ph.D. Fuller discussed, “these two referendums touch on extremely complex and important issues because they have to do with socio-economic rights and with the division of labour in the home, something that was not really tackled in politics in the last years.” The matter, she said, deals with such fundamental societal issues that it goes beyond the amendments of the 1937 Irish Constitution, and almost becomes a Western World question about the intersection of feminism and societal behaviours. “Having socio-economic rights in the constitution is very complex”, Ph.D. Fuller argued, “because it is hard to change them moving with the inevitable societal changes and demands with times. Making such a change would have required a longer and more in-depth societal discussion”. In order purely to address the gendered language and the sexist issue, it could have been easier to change specific wordings in the phrases rather than touching upon State responsibility and other issues that might change the socio-economic status quo. 

Lastly, it has been evident that the decision to have a referendum and to have it on 8 March 2024 was very rushed. It almost felt like gesture politics, Prof. Suiter argued, and not a very thoroughly thought process as long as to have it on International Women’s Day. 


What are the lessons and consequences from the results of 8 March 2024 in Ireland?

Surely, “the political parties will be more reluctant to have referendum in the future”, Prof. Suiter said, “and will make sure to have better campaigns and clearer information.” She also considers very unlikely to politically touch back on the issues since it would cost a lot of political capital. Prof. Suiter foresees that no politicians will try to address the two amendments in the next couple of decades, because of the greatly unsuccessful outcome. 

Moreover, the events around the referenda showed the little awareness that Irish people have in regards to Citizens’ Assemblies and their work, Ph.D. Fuller argued. She further discusses the issue, by highlighting that in Ireland a lot of experts invited to be part of the Citizens’ Assembly were from NGOs that are financed by the State. Because of this, it was like the State was lobbying itself –what she metaphorically presented as “two hands shaking each other on the same side” – hence, not very representative of people and of society’s demands to the State. This is shown by the topics at stake in the existing Citizens’ Assemblies, that, like in this case, do not touch the biggest priorities for Irish citizens, Ph.D. Fuller stated.

Despite this, “Irish politicians always accept the people’s vote”, she said, “and this is what makes referendums in Ireland very positive […] it makes you feel you live in a democracy and that your vote will be respected”.

Regarding the specific issues of the referenda, it is hard to make predictions about what will happen in the future of Irish politics and what it will mean for Irish society, Prof. Suiter commented, but it will be clearer in the next weeks with the forthcoming information from post-voting surveys.