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Ireland’s next constitutional referendum has appeared on the horizon.

Last month, at a meeting of the Irish government's Joint Committee on Gender Equality, Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach (prime minister), said that he is committed to holding a referendum next year on the clauses of the Irish Constitution that deal with motherhood and the home. In the government’s sights is Article 41.2:

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. 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.

Martin also takes the view that the referendum cannot propose a simple deletion; he wants the current wording to be removed and replaced with a new text.

However, the changes may not be limited to 41.2. Article 41 as a whole concerns “The Family.” The Taoiseach has indicated that he is also committed to changing the provisions of Article 41.3.1, which reads: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

There is more. In July, in its interim report on constitutional change, the Joint Committee on Gender Equality published a draft of recommendations for new wording to replace both 41.2 and 41.3—as well as Article 41.1, which currently says, “The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”

The committee’s recommended new wording shows us how things are likely to end up. It removes references to the recognition and protection of the family, to the family as a moral institution bearing inalienable rights, and to the family as the “necessary basis of social order” that is “indispensable to the welfare of the Nation.” Instead, the alternative wordings speak of the right of everyone “to respect for their private and family life.”

The draft also removes language recognizing the support mothers give to the state by their life within the home, and the state’s reciprocal commitment to ensure that mothers are not obliged to work outside the home through economic necessity. The new wording would instead recognize “the home, family and community” as providing indispensable support to the common good, with the state assuming responsibility “to support care within and outside of the home.”

Finally, the committee's draft removes all language about protecting marriage from attack. In the proposed new wording, the state would pledge itself to guard with special care not “the institution of Marriage,” but the family—“including but not limited to the marital family.”

Article 41 was already changed following the divorce referendum of 1995 (41.3.2) and the marriage equality referendum of 2015 (41.4). Next year’s referendum will see Ireland moving even closer to a constitution scrubbed clean of all original provisions giving special recognition and protection to families created through the marriage of a man and a woman and in which the woman plays a distinctive role within the home. Instead, the constitution of 2023 seems likely to privilege a much broader concept of caregiving across a multiplicity of settings and circumstances.

Changes to the constitution need to be approved by a parliamentary bill before being submitted to the decision of the people in a referendum. However, opponents in both houses, the Dáil and Seanad, will be in a tiny minority. In wider Irish society, Article 41.2 may attract some stout, eloquent, quixotic defenders. Maria Steen, a barrister, responded to the Taoiseach's comments with an op-ed in the Irish Times:

Contrary to some reports, article 41.2 of the Constitution does not state that a woman’s place is in the home. Rather, it acknowledges the invaluable work that women do in the home. It is proper that it should. Those who have experienced a mother’s loving influence in the home are acutely conscious of the vital role that a woman plays in the life of her family. For those who have not, its absence is felt even into adulthood. Article 41.2, therefore, expresses a universal and timeless truth. . . . That is why the acknowledgment belongs in our society’s foundational document.

But such defenders will be very few in number. One might speculate whether a vague, residual piety will take effect at some stage and stay the hand of the Irish, or whether sheer ennui concerning endless referendums might creep in. But I would not bet on these things. The referendum caravan will move onward toward its final destination: the full secularization and de-Catholicizing of the Irish Constitution.

The ultimate step in this process will likely be the removal of the Preamble, which states:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,

We, the people of Éire,

Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,

Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,

And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,

Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

There is not space here to enumerate the ways in which modern Irish society and the Preamble are mind-bendingly at odds with each other. But next year’s referendum, which will see one of the last remaining “Catholic” clauses buckle and fall, brings the moment of the Preamble’s demise inexorably closer. There are corners of Article 45 (“Directive Principles of Social Policy”) that might yet be nibbled away at (for example, its reference to citizens not being “forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength”), and the presidential oath (which begins “In the presence of Almighty God” and concludes “May God direct and sustain me”) may soon be judged ill-fitting in a society that gives equal esteem to all faiths and none.

But the overall logic and direction of recent constitutional change is very clear. When it arrives, the referendum on the Preamble will be Catholic Ireland’s last stand in a long-lost war, the moment the standard symbolizing a defeated, vanished order is captured. The time is coming.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

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Image by National Library of Ireland licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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