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Constitutional sleight of hand thwarted

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

10 March 2024

Posters for and against changes to the constitution.

The results in the referenda in the South returned a resounding defeat for the Irish political class.  The first referendum on family and the deletion of references to women was defeated by 67.7% and the second one on the issue of care was defeated by an even greater margin of 73.9%, as some of the advocates of a Yes vote on family belatedly found they couldn’t stomach the privatisation of care that this amendment would insert into the Constitution.

Not even in the Taoiseach’s and the Minister’s own constituency did a majority vote for the referenda.  In Dublin West 63.02% voted against the family referendum and 70.9% in the care referendum.  Only Dún Laoghaire voted by less than 300 votes in favour of the family referendum.  This represents a major defeat for the government, the highest No vote in a referendum ever.  There are political implications for them coming up towards a general election.  There are also implications for their policies in relation to women and the constant attempts to erase the word woman from legislation, policy documents and information leaflets, particularly in the health sector, where a woman’s sex is hugely important in relation to the type of care required.

When the referenda were first mentioned, there were some debates and concerns from feminists about a sleight of hand at a constitutional level to leave the definition of a woman in such a manner that it wouldn’t apply so much to women but to men.  We had seen school curricula undermined, the introduction of a whole swathe of misogynistic measures from placing rapists on the same prison wing as female inmates to twisting advertising for cervical smear campaigns which were no longer to encourage women to get a check-up but rather anyone with a cervix, in a country where many women were not fully aware of the meaning of the word, where new migrant communities included women with low or faltering levels of English, but clearly understood they were women.  All of this against the background of the cervical smear scandal where the state outsourced testing to a company in the US that could do it cheaper, as women were clearly not worth spending much money on and women then died of cancer.  Some of the leading male functionaries for that, went on to be given more powerful positions in the health sector.

This is also a defeat for the parliamentary left and their socio-political milieu in the government funded NGOs (the word Non, is clearly superfluous in the context of Irish NGOs).  The Irish left was to the fore in arguing and campaigning for abortion, contraception, divorce and gay rights.  In fact, none of these things would have come to pass, had it not been for the Irish left.  Now however, they are engaged in a full-frontal assault on the rights of women, denying their very existence, placing their health at risk and demanding the prioritising of so-called trans medicine, diverting resources away from women towards men.  This should be a wakeup call for them, to not surrender the fight for women to conservative forces in Irish society, who were undoubtedly an element in the referenda.

They found themselves on the same side as the government in an attempt to insert the privatisation of care and placing the burden of the costs of care on people’s families.  They stepped back, though they weren’t the first ones out of the stocks to denounce it as neoliberal, that was left to sectors campaigning against the family referendum too.  The misogynistic ideologues at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Free Legal Advice Centres took their time in coming out against the care amendment, unsure perhaps whether they would be accused of turning their backs on their misogynistic advocacy for rapists being housed in women’s prison wings, or men competing in women’s sports, amongst other things.

It is not too late for the parliamentary reformist left to step back and reappraise the situation.  One of the constituent parts of the People Before Profit coalition is the Socialist Workers’ Network which has a history of doing complete U-turns on a whole range of idiotic positions.  They once flirted with radicalised Islam for example, they now no longer do that.  It has been many years since any of their members described Al-Qaeda as an anti-imperialist organisation, so, the idea they might flip on these issues is not beyond the realm of possibilities.  However, they have proven themselves to be political and morally bankrupt when it comes to the defence of women and whilst they might flip, there is really a need for them to be pushed aside and replaced by organisations genuinely committed to the defence of women.

They tried to remove mention of the word woman in the Constitution.  The language of the Constitution is archaic and conservative, though it is clear from it that only women give birth.  It centres the institution of marriage as the basis for society, something no socialist should support.  It is an article that should be changed, modernised even, but this was a squandered opportunity where by sleight of hand, under the guise of introducing more progressive language (which it didn’t actually do) the right and the left engaged in an assault on women and fortunately failed.

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