Why Is Ireland Deleting Women From It’s Constitution?
The overrated power of activists, the value of being modern, and political convenience
There's been a distinct air of panic to recent communications from the government on the upcoming referendum on changes to the Irish Constitution, which will amongst other things remove the use of the word "woman" from the document. Immigration has plunged Ireland into a culture war; the last thing the government needs is to present their enemies with the chance to deal them a rare constitutional black eye.
Awareness of this fact has people asking - why are we even putting this to the vote? There is no intense public clamour for the vote, no urgent legal loophole will be closed. Why are the establishment walking themselves into an entirely optional culture war defeat, for no material gain? Why can Irish politicians not resent the desire to fiddle with the constitution?
The existing clause is often derided as “a woman’s place is in the home” - an inaccurate representation of the text of the article that is felt by its opponents to be spiritually true, because it represents the bad old Ireland of their nightmares (dreams?) where women were chained to the kitchen table and surveilled by busy-body priests. The existing version of the constitution was written by Eamon DeValera, the conceptual arch-enemy of modern Ireland. The current text states that:
1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
The proposal is to make the language of this clause "gender-neutral" by removing the word "woman" and to include other carers both ‘in the home’ and ‘beyond the home’.
Why make the change now? Some observers, aware of the role that activism has in driving public policy on cultural issues, have speculated that the change is an NGO-driven and ideological one. In this reading the desire to change the constitution fundamentally stems from a desire on the part of activists to embed and extend the changes of Ireland's revolutionary Gender Recognition Act. Activists on this topic believe that biological sex is an illusion, that men and women don’t exist and that we should be gradually eroding and erasing language that refers to women in any official law or document. So the change is on the agenda because NGOs want it. Is that actually true?
The most recent push against this wording dates from the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael manifestos of 2011, both of which contained general promises on a push for constitutional reform and modernisation (as did the manifestos for all other major parties.) This in turn led to the creation of a convention on the constitution to consider a number of changes of which the “women in the home” is just one.
The manifestos were documents of the post-crash era, and promises around constitutional reform have to be viewed in that light. As in the aftermath of many societal catastrophes, there was a sentiment post-crash that those events were the logical outcome of dessicated and corrupt political system which stank from top to bottom, and to which fundamental changes needed to be made. The eventual Fine Gael/ Labour Programme for government stated that "Old beliefs, traditions and expectations were blown away...", "the old ways will not do", "our country deserves a fresh start from the failed politics of the years past".
Unfortunately when it came to it, loads of people didn't actually want to turn things upside down and give them a shake - this included not just politicians but a very large segment of voters. The promises to review and revise the constitution in order to make it fit for a modern and progressive Ireland was a classic fudge, a promise to totally re-evaluate the basis of Irish society but which in fact would not prevent any obstacle to continuing business as usual.
While not the public's top priority, the urge to update the constitution has a certain political weight. The rosetta stone of understanding Irish political and cultural life in 2023 is that idea of modernity - that moving towards the future and being aligned to whatever are considered ascendant and modern values and attitudes - has a value in Ireland that it doesn’t in other countries. The official Irish story is that we were poor, dispossessed and oppressed as recently as the 1960s and our move toward modernity has made us richer, braver, more influential in the world, happier and freer.
While there are various qualifiers one could add here, especially post-crash, this is not a crazy thing to believe and has lots of popular support. Any idea that comes with the imprimatur of being modernising, or catching up with what the rest of the world is doing, or leading out on the modern ideas has a certain attraction to the Irish public. Politicians have a sense of this, and a lot of what looks like activist power is politicians instinctively gravitating towards a popular modernising position; conveniently it also often as a way of avoiding doing something more concrete.
The way we got to this point also tells us something about the power of activism in changing Irish life - which is that activist forces are as often followers as leaders; and often attain their goals by exploiting or repurposing already scheduled changes rather than by initiating those changes themselves. Campaigns to liberalise Irish society tend to give them more to play with, more sources of funding to harvest, more platforms to speak about their issues, more opportunities to integrate those ideas into the mainstream by engaging with government etc etc.
Because of the relentlessness of their efforts in pushing on all fronts at the same time, this can give them the appearance of omnipotence and never-ending success that is formidable but also exaggerated. The "women's place in the home" change is not on the ballot because of a push by NGOs to expand ideas for gender identity, and whether or not it passes will probably not be a deciding factor in the success of those ideas. But they will be happy to exploit the opportunity it presents to inch their agenda forward.
Notwithstanding the ability of activists and politicians the Irish instinct for modernisation to their own ends, the success of proposed changes to the constitution look to be in doubt. Minister for Integration Roderic O'Gorman spoke during the week on the issue, highlighting that "progressive organisations must explain any decision not to support referendum", a statement that has been interpreted as a veiled demand that activists getting government money row in behind the government's proposals. Trouble in paradise! Whether it passes or not, the referendum already has the stench of death around it. The question may not just be how we got here or what it means; but what it will mean if the public rejects the government proposals. With all the other portents, will it be a signal that the Imperial Phase of Irish Progressivism is over - and if so, what's next?