The referendum on nothing

Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, which finds itself on the chopping block this coming autumn following the Government’s announcement of a referendum on the matter, reads as follows:

  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.

Some of that could, admittedly, be phrased better in the modern context. Perhaps, were we writing such an article in the enlightened days of 2023, we might not use the words “duties in the home”.

And yet one wonders: Have we arrived at the point where we are having referendums over hurty words, without considering the actual meaning of those words in terms of policy? I fear we have.

The constitution as written in this area actually had a very noble aim: To give people a guarantee that there would never be any economic need, in essence, to put their children in childcare. It would always be possible, in DeValera’s vision for Ireland, for one parent to remain at home and spend time with their children, and the state would “endeavour to ensure” that it was not necessary for both parents to work.

Fascinating phrasing that, however: “endeavour to ensure”.

It means nothing – like, in truth, great swathes of the Irish constitution, which is chock full of get-out-of-jail cards for the state, in phrases like the above, and “in so far as is practicable”, or “as effectively as it may”. When you endeavour to ensure something, you are giving yourself room to fail without consequence. And indeed, the Irish state has failed in this particular endeavour without any consequence at all.

In fact, it has not just failed: In some areas of policy it has actually failed to endeavour at all. Consider tax individualisation, which prevented stay-at-home-parents from transferring their tax credits to a working spouse, thus actually punishing families with a stay at home parent over families with two people working.

The best argument for removing this stuff from the constitution is that it’s a promise the state never intended to keep, and has not even tried to keep. Retaining it does not insult women, in this writer’s view – but it does needlessly flatter a state that pretends in its foundational document to be interested in promoting the economic security of stay at home parents when it is anything but. Endeavour to ensure. C’mon.

Indeed if the argument for removing this article was that it is redundant and makes a promise politicians will never try to keep, I would be sympathetic. But that is not the argument: The argument is that it is in someway offensive that a document written in the 1930s would assume that women, rather than men, are usually those in one-income families who remain at home with the children. As arguments go, this has broadly the same merit as complaining that Shakespeare wrote a play in which he referred to the title character – a woman – as a shrew. You wouldn’t get away with that today, either.

And it is, literally, just a matter of hurty words: The Irish High court has already determined, in its reading of this article, that it applies to carers in the home in general, male or female, parent, or sibling. In fact, though the constitutional protections the article offers may be weak, they apply to more people than only mothers.

But if it is just the words, then consider this: Irish feminists are perhaps the first group of women in recorded history to wish to remove a constitutional protection that is directed at women. Why?

The wrong kind of women, is the short answer. What we have here is an armada of lawyers and NGO employees and successful career women who are offended that, way back in 1937, they’d have been considered more likely to be mothers than workers. And because some words almost a hundred years old do not apply to them today, they would like to strip whatever protection those words offer to women to whom they do apply. If you wanted the definition of me-first feminism, look no further.

The referendum will pass, I assume, on the back of a generation of younger voters who, in the lack of the ability to change anything tangible, will settle for a crusade against ancient totems. It is not unlike the actions of Charlemagne, when he subdued the heretics, and cut down their ancient and holy oaks to make the point that the new religion was in charge now. The world hadn’t really changed, but the Franks presumably felt better that those oak trees were gone.

It will be backed too, I predict, overwhelmingly by men, who have been trained relentlessly in the culture to just do what the feminists say in order to seem pro-women. The final guarantor of passage is that opposition will come from people like me, and the Bishops, and what have you, thus guaranteeing that a vote to change the constitution is really a vote to punish the church, or whatever.

It’s just all so empty, though: A meaningless clause, to be deleted in a meaningless referendum, to give feminist campaigners a little sugar high on International Women’s Day.

We don’t take our country seriously. I’m not sure we ever did.

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