Why Ireland, like Chile, said no to ‘progressive’ constitutional change

Image: ArtRose, Pixabay

News that Ireland is on course to reject proposed changes to references on family and women in its constitution made me think of Chile.

In September 2022, Chileans voted against a new, progressive constitution, which had been drafted to replace the 1980 document written under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

As for Ireland, two referendums were put to the people on March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day. The Irish government, led by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, had presented the proposed changes to the country’s 1937 constitution as a chance to embed inclusivity and equality in the document.

The changes were about the language used to define the family and the necessary work of keeping a home.

The definition of family was proposed to be widened from a relationship founded on marriage to any that is “durable”, including cohabitation. And the reference in the constitution to a “mother’s duties in the home” was to be replaced with wording that recognised care provided by family members. The Irish prime minister had said on the eve of the vote that ‘no’ would be a “step backwards”.

But it’s a ‘no’. Is it really a step backwards? Is Ireland not as inclusive as everyone thought then? What about its landmark 2015 same-sex marriage referendum? And its 2018 abortion referendum?

The 2015 vote made Ireland the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote, as noted by lesbian American actor and television host Ellen DeGeneres.

In 2018, Ireland voted by a landslide to repeal its near-total ban on abortion, a quite remarkable roar for change considering just 40 years previously, Irish women could not even buy a condom legally, divorce was banned and abortion a taboo that was not to be mentioned in public.

But this year’s two referendums didn’t pass by popular acclaim. Why?

Some say there was confusion over the wording. Others, including feminist and progressive groups said the proposals were vague. And Michael McDowell, an Irish senator and former justice minister who was part of the Lawyers For No group, said the wording indicated “unwise social experimentation with the constitution”. He added that individual voters took a look and correctly rejected it.

Let’s focus on the words “social experimentation”. We’ve heard criticisms of this sort before, in other countries, in relation to proposed constitutional changes that were meant to embed progressiveness.

In Chile, for instance, the proposed constitution rejected by voters included a long list of social rights and guarantees, as well as sweeping changes to the judicial and political systems. It prioritised environmental protection, enshrined gender parity across government and guaranteed women’s rights.

And yet, many Chilean women were not persuaded the new document did enough to bring their country together and make it a better place to live. In fact, one woman casting her vote in a wealthy suburb of Santiago was quoted to say “This is a badly written constitution”. Many Chileans said the proposed shakeup of the political system was unnecessary and experimental.

Was this because Chile is backward-looking? In fact, a year after rejecting a proposed progressive constitution, Chileans rejected a draft conservative one in yet another referendum.

Mostly, it is moderation that wins the day – and referendums.

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