The Irish Constitution – referenda coming up…

There are a number of amendments to the written Constitution of Ireland currently being proposed, some of which will impact the North. This OP examines 4. It is possible that all 4 could be put to the electorate on a single ballot to take place within the lifetime of the current Dáil.

Probably the keenest interest in the North would be on extending the franchise for election of the President of Ireland to the Irish diaspora. The current coalition seems especially keen on this but the latest opinion polling (2021) shows only a small majority in favour of extending voting to Irish citizens resident in NI and GB and an even slimmer majority for Irish residents in other countries. Enfranchising Irish citizens in the North would send a powerful message of inclusion in the unification process. Also hundreds of Brazilian citizens voted in Croke Park in the recent Brazilian Presidential election so why not for “ours”? However opponents (including me) point out voting for a Head of State by people who will never set foot in the State, could throw up anomalies. People would be voting for who they wished for, and possibly can’t get in their own country of residence, not who or what they would have to live under. Would we ever have got marriage equality or abortion reform if right wing Irish Americans had put “their” man or woman in Áras an Uachtaráin? Would we ever see a politician as President as radical, empathetic and as tuned into the nation as Michael D Higgins ever again? A lively debate is likely (including by Northern based commentators like Emma DeSouza) and either side could win.

The second proposal, on Gender Equality, comes from the Citizens Assembly. This body is designed to get the pulse of the Irish people – to reflect changes in direction of opinion. It comprises citizens from all over the State and all age groups and social classes who meet over a period of time and thrash out issues in debate. It was spot on in assessing the desire for change in the aforementioned marriage equality and abortion referendums. The proposal here is to remove the references to the “role of a woman in the home” in the Irish Constitution which are now seen as anachronistic or misogynistic. They were put in at a time when women worked tirelessly as both homemakers, homeworkers and unpaid farm workers or factory labourers in an effort to create “space” for the bringing up of children. Many women still do this multi tasking of course but the phrasing of the Constitution almost let’s men off the hook and should be changed to reflect the structure of the modern family.

The Right to Housing would put living accommodation on the same footing as Education – a statutory right for all citizens to a roof over their head. It sounds laudable and potentially far reaching given the current housing crisis in the South and the 10,000 or so homeless people – a third of them children. However, given it has the support of the Housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien, and it’s the Housing Commission who is setting the wording of the question, cynics (including me again) fear a bout of gesture politics over action.

The final amendment would be in the field of water. Irish trades unions are campaigning for a referendum on keeping Irish Water in State ownership – tying the hands of future governments in a hugely controversial area where previous attempts at reform, and the introduction of water charges, had people marching in the streets. The recent Act passed in the Oireachtas was largely administrative and ducked the issue.

How many of the 4 proposals reach the electorate will depend on timing, difficulty in framing the questions and political will. Ireland takes great care to ensure the outcomes match the voter expectations – and unlike Brexit, there are no post referendum surprises! For me, my interest will be as an informed observer. As a British Citizen resident in Donegal, I don’t get a vote.

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