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Mary McAleese keynote address for Yes Yes Campaign

Published: Friday, March 01, 2024

We are fortunate to have a written Constitution. It was carefully crafted almost ninety years ago so that we would know the political and social stability that comes from a trusted overarching formal and agreed code which delineates, among other important things, the relationship between the State and us, the citizens. It has some of the qualities of a lodestar in that it inspires, directs and guides but more than that it vindicates, protects, proclaims. For all that it is intended to be  steady and constant, from the outset it was never intended to be unchanging or unchangeable. Those who drafted it knew that the very strength of the constitution and the maintenance of its ongoing public support  in successive generations would depend on its ability to remain relevant to our lives and times. That is why we the people were given considerable power to change the wording of the constitution by referendum. It’s a power we have used many times to update, to modernise and to revise. In our world where democracy is increasingly threatened and even overwhelmed, this power we citizens of Ireland have is precious. It was hard won. It is strengthened when we use it, weakened when we do not. To vote in a referendum is to make our voice count in our civic space. So this week after a considerable debate that has gone on for years and not just the few weeks since the Government called the  March 8th referendum, those of us with the right to vote also have the responsibility to vote. This week we need to make up our minds about how best to vote.  

I have made up my mind and for what it is worth, I intend to vote “yes” to both proposed changes to the Constitution because I am persuaded that they will reflect the overwhelming impulse for equality and inclusivity that is a hallmark of modern Ireland. They will remove from the constitution language and attitudes which have long been controversial on account of perceived sexism and  the marginalisation of many people whose strong contribution to family and community life has been under-valued. I also believe that in weighing up the pros and cons of the proposed changes there have been invaluable debates  around gender equality, around the meaning of family, around rights and carers, around  rights and disability and around government support for citizens rights. These debates have been opened up by the proposed changes and they will not be closed by voting Yes, in fact the opposite-  these debates will gather increased momentum as our country takes another step into the  egalitarian future our citizens desire, deserve and by their efforts are creating. The referendums on March 8th are part of a journey not a destination. 

  The first Referendum proposes to continue the 1937 language: “to guard with special care the institution of Marriage” but at the same time it proposes new additional wording  which will acknowledge that in our contemporary society families may be founded  on marriage or on other durable relationships. Importantly too the revised wording of Article 41 will continue to declare in the language of 1937 that the family is “ the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society”, and  is “a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”  

 So many families whose lived lives enhance our communities and our country but are not based on marriage, will see in our revised constitution the respect they have always deserved and  the recognition they have earned,  but which  is absent, deliberately absent from the Constitution as currently worded. To vote yes to that will be an overdue leap forward in terms of equality and inclusion. 

The second Referendum deals with a provision also in Article 41 which was controversial even back in 1937. Often referred to as the “woman in the home” article  it refers to the importance to the common good of the life of women within the home and says that the State should endeavour to ensure that mothers should not have to go out to work to the neglect of their “duties in the home”. Some see this article as patronising, paternalistic and sexist. Others see it as a valuable recognition of womens’ work in the home.  A large majority of national and other commentators, including United Nations Treaty Monitoring bodies over recent years have regarded it as anachronistic and no longer suited to an Ireland anxious to promote gender equality. However our Government does not propose the mere deletion of the Article, though it does propose that. Instead  alongside this long anticipated deletion it is proposing to create a new Article 42B which  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  asserts that Government “shall strive to support such provision.” 

This new so-called Carers Amendment is, in my view, an exciting development with considerable future potential for it sees our families as what they are and always have been - essential communities of  mutual care for one another, and it tells families that they are not alone for government has a constitutional responsibility to strive to support them in caring for one another. Caring for one another is a characteristic of being part of a family. We know that the word “care” can be stretched across a vast spectrum of family life from sending children out to school clean and fed to  getting up three times a night to ensure a disabled or ill child who is tube fed is not choking, to nursing a chronically ill spouse or parent, to safeguarding a parent suffering from dementia, to advocating for the rights of a disabled family member and coping with a litany of  everyday crises some acute, some chronic which make huge demands of individuals, demands that can overwhelm and make family life very difficult, demands that provoke levels of heroism and endurance that demand more than mere respect. 

In recent years the invisible world of what constitutes care within so many families has been revealed in all its remarkable extent, its demands, its frustrations, its relentlessness, its courage, its loneliness, its entitlement to greater visibility, greater support, greater practical and principled recognition. I believe a resounding Yes vote will place a new spotlight on that world of family care and involve us  in a much more dynamic debate underpinned by this fresh constitutional recognition, which is as much a challenge as it is a statement of intent. 

March 8th is our chance to insert new realities, new energy and new insights into parts of our constitution that have aged badly and are no longer fit for purpose. There is no value in holding on  to them for the sake of nostalgia or out of some mistaken notion that the constitution should be inviolable. To leave these articles as they are would in my view  contradict the dynamic of a people who cared enough to vote overwhelmingly for same sex marriage, who cared enough to ensure that the tragedies of Savita Halappanavar’s death and the death of her unborn child would not be in vain. Each of those referendums, in 2015 and 2018 respectively provoked intense debate, involved considerable weighing up of complex arguments and saw our citizens take firm responsibility for necessary constitutional change.  This referendum is no different and I hope between us we not only will change the wording but will then stay with the issues that have been raised including by those who would wish the wording to go further.  Far from being a final step I see this as the latest step of many on the road to the “farther shore” of full equality, full inclusion which will be easier to reach from Yes/Yes on March 8th. 


Remarks of Dr. Mary McAleese, March 1st, 2024