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Old Ireland stirs

The defeat handed to Dublin’s progressive establishment was a reminder of an older Ireland

Artillery Row

Chesterton once said: ‘I have always been more inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong.’ It looks like the politicians of Ireland did not think that way when they rushed to put two amendments before the Irish people on International Women’s Day, in the belief, as one Irish journalist put, “that Yes votes would have allowed Ministers to bask in the warm glow of the approval of the women of Ireland.” With six political parties in favour and countless NGOs promoting the Yes vote, there was a general complacency among the Irish elite: they expected this would be, as one disability activist wrote, “the latest in a series of referendums that have seen Ireland progress into the 21st century.” It was a done deal. But, instead, they had a rude awakening when the Irish comprehensively rejected what the troublesome literary classes wanted.

Maria Steen, barrister and mother of two, said eloquently in several places that the care amendment “does nothing for women, rather, it erases them”

There were two proposals. The family amendment was a proposal to give the same constitutional rights and protections to families based on “other durable relationships” as were previously given only to families founded on marriage. The care amendment proposed to delete two articles. One recognised that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” The other stated: “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 proposed replacement for them would say: “The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision.”

There were many reasons why the proposals fell flat on their faces, despite people being browbeaten over the danger of ‘keeping women in the home.’ Maria Steen, barrister and mother of two, said eloquently in several places that the care amendment “does nothing for women, rather, it erases them”. Similarly, former Attorney General Senator McDowell wrote: “The call to amend the Constitution is based on an ideology that wants to make gender and motherhood legally invisible concepts.” McDowell also pointed out that the advantages conferred on mothers by the Constitution have been used in cases to protect mothers in contested alimony and maintenance cases after separation and divorce, i.e. to ensure that the mother cannot be forced to leave the children in daycare and work just because the ex-husband does not want to pay maintenance. Leo Varadkar faced social media ridicule for apparently saying it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to help those who care for disabled family members. Senator Tom Clonan said repeatedly that the care amendment “gives constitutional expression to an ableist view that disabled citizens must rely on family members for care – and deliberately excludes the right to an independent, autonomous life in the community.”

These are all true and important reasons why the amendments failed. Much has been said about the Constitution of 1937 representing the outdated views of an Ireland now fortunately in the rear-view mirror. But the whole issue puts into question the usual way that fundamental laws and constitutions are talked about. On the one side, there are those who want nothing to stand in the way of legislative supremacy, because this is what ensures a people’s ability to govern themselves and for the people’s vote to matter more than any constitutional laws or courts that could stand in their way. On the other side, there are others who think that without some kind of written constitution, we have no way to preserve our fundamental rights and freedoms from being encroached in the future.

 A democracy should take into account the votes and views of all those on its soil, both those on it and those under it

But there is another way to think about this issue. Yes, constitutional laws should not be set in stone or face impossible obstacles to be changed. They should not tie the hands of legislators in the future, like the American Constitution does. (Does America still need armed citizens, so that it can raise a militia to repel invaders?) But constitution laws should act as a brake to give a sober second thought to any legislation that contravenes what the authors of a constitution have painstakingly enshrined in it.

Chesterton also wrote: “I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise, giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

In any democracy, of course, some people may not succeed in getting what they want. But their votes should still be counted; their voice should still be heard. “All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.” A constitution can’t help but be the product of a particular time and place, and it may contain ideas or views that a later generation might rightly cast aside. But Éamon de Valera and others characters from the Republic’s heroic era make the current class of Irish politicians seem small by comparison. Of course Ireland should not be wed indissolubly to the social attitudes of the 1930s. But a democracy should take into account the votes and views of all those on its soil, both those on it and those under it.

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