Ireland Rejects Constitution Changes, Keeping ‘Women in the Home’ Language

Voters in Ireland rejected two proposed changes to the country’s Constitution that would have removed language about women’s duties being in the home and broadened the definition of family beyond marriage, dealing a blow to the government that analysts said suggested the weakness of their campaign to pass the proposals.

While the decisions will have no practical implications for the law, the results, announced on Saturday, saw the proposals defeated by a wide majority, an unexpected defeat for equality campaigners and for the coalition government of Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, or prime minister.

Despite support for a vote in favor of both proposals from all major political parties, some critics had said the proposed clauses didn’t go far enough, while others criticized what they saw as phrasing that was too broad.

Mr. Varadkar, speaking Saturday after most votes had been counted, said it was clear that the proposals had been defeated.

“As head of government and on behalf of the government, we accept responsibility for the result,” he said. “It was our responsibility to convince the majority of people to vote ‘Yes,’ and we clearly failed to do so.”

Irish citizens had gone to the polls on Friday to vote in two referendums to amend the country’s 87-year-old Constitution, which was drafted at a time when the Roman Catholic Church’s influence on many aspects of life in Ireland was immense.

Supporters viewed the proposed amendments as vital to ensuring that the Constitution reflected the country’s more secular and liberal modern identity. But many of those who cast their ballots in the referendums said “no” to both questions.

Many analysts and politicians said the results were more complex than a simple rejection of the proposed changes. A lower-than-expected voter turnout and confusing messaging by the “Yes” campaign may have contributed to the proposals’ failures.

Still, 44 percent of the population turned out for the vote, and 67.7 percent of voters refused the changes, according to the official results.

In Friday’s referendums, voters were asked to consider two separate questions.

The first was whether to amend the Constitution’s Article 41 to provide for a wider concept of family. The suggested language would have recognized a family, “whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society,” and would have eliminated another clause.

The second concerned Article 41.2, which equality activists and women’s rights groups have opposed for decades. It says that the state “recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that it will “endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

The public voted against replacing that language with a new article that recognized all family caregivers.

The result on the “life within the home” clause was met with disappointment from women’s rights groups that had long campaigned for the removal of the language, seen as a relic of a patriarchal past.

Even before the Constitution was first ratified in 1937, some women had demonstrated against the introduction of the language, and this year, the National Women’s Council of Ireland recreated their protest outside government buildings.

In recent decades, the Irish public has made a series of significant changes that rolled back socially conservative policies. In 1995, Ireland voted to end its ban on divorce, with a later referendum, in 2019, further liberalizing divorce laws. In 2015, the country voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and, in 2018, a referendum was held that repealed the amendment that had prohibited abortion.

The latest referendums were called after a Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality, which was held in 2020 and 2021, made a series of recommendations, including a change to the Constitution. Some people had argued that the planned changes did not go far enough, and that may have been part of the reason the proposals were rejected.

Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, the opposition party in the lower house of Ireland’s legislature, which had supported the “yes” vote as did every other major political party, said the defeat was a failure of the government.

“These were government propositions; they chose the wording; they chose the timing,” Ms. McDonald said. “They deliberately excluded the opposition. They went, as I say, on a solo run. They didn’t collaborate and they didn’t convince. This was their proposition, and it was their job to get it over the line.”

She added that “the great pity” was the government’s failure “to listen in the first instance to the Citizens’ Assembly.”

Some opponents of the amendments had argued that the proposed language about “durable relationships” was too broad. Others said that the care provisions that would have replaced the language about women’s duties did not go far enough toward compelling the state to protect caregivers regardless of their gender.

Michael McDowell, a lawyer who is an Independent member of the Seanad, the upper house of Ireland’s legislature, and was once deputy head of government, had campaigned for a “No” vote.

“The government misjudged the mood of the electorate and put before them proposals which they did not explain, proposals which could have serious consequences,” Mt. McDowell told RTÉ, the public broadcaster, adding that the language had been rushed through the legislature without much consultation.

Rónán Mullen, another Seanad member, told RTÉ the rejections were a “damning verdict” from the public on the current government “and the way they have been handling a whole range of issues in recent years.”