8 March 2024: a day of double entendre for Ireland

Emma Rouine talks to TWIL events officer Isobel Houlihan on the upcoming referendum and what it means for Irish people

International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on March 8. However, this year is different for Ireland. On this day, Irish people will also be asked to vote in two referendums. These proposed amendments provide a broader meaning to the concept of family under Article 41. They also remove Article 41.2 and replace it with a proposed Article 42B, bringing Irish women’s rights into the 21st century. 

Trinity News spoke with Trinity Women in Law’s (TWIL) Events Officer Isobel Houlihan about the upcoming referendum and what it means for Irish people.

To give a bit of context on TWIL, it is a subcommittee of the Trinity Law Society. Celebrating its sixth year, the third-year law student described that it’s “still in its infancy.” Despite this, it’s been a “great success” in providing a “community … for women who want to go into the legal profession whether you are a law student or not.”

Reflecting on the subcommittee’s objective, Houlihan said: “Oftentimes in more senior law positions in society, women are underrepresented despite being the majority of law graduates … Take the average law class, the gender ratio is quite in favour of women yet, for some reason when it comes to who is placed in the most senior positions, it is overwhelmingly men. The founder of TWIL reflected on that and was determined to empower women so that we can change this.” 

The main event of the year is the Mentorship Programme. Houlihan reflected on their latest launch of the program last October, where Noeline Blackwell — former CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre — was the Keynote Speaker at the event. In Blackwell’s speech, Houlihan recalled how “Noeline spoke about how much had changed in the last fifty years in Irish society and how sometimes circumstances can look really bad politically or culturally but over time if you persist … things can change and that they have changed. A lot of backtracking has happened in the last few years for the rights of women and minorities, so much so that it becomes very easy to become despondent for the future. Noeline’s speech really put into perspective for us young women that long-term change is possible even if in the short-term circumstances look really bad. I think it’s important to remember that.”

“And it’s true: Ireland has changed a lot in the last fifty years with repealing the eighth amendment in 2018 and even further back to the Marriage Bar, which was abolished in 1973″

Before this, women would have to give up their public service jobs once they married. Houlihan pointed out: “The Marriage Bar had a double effect. Firstly, creating direct discrimination by removing women from their jobs. Secondly, creating indirect discrimination by barring women from the most financially secure jobs in the country.”

The lead-up to this 39th amendment constitution has been a long time coming. In 2012, The Constitutional Convention recommended several amendments to the constitution, including bringing more women into political positions, legalising gay marriage and also to make article 41.2 gender neutral including other carers both “in the home” and “beyond the home.” They also recommended for the state “a reasonable level of support” to carers.

“However, in 2024, the proposed wording is very different to this recommendation”

Houlihan says the constitutional convention recommendations read as giving “a stronger likelihood that the wording would put an obligation on the state to support care in the home as opposed to the wording of the amendment that is being proposed now.”

She continues on this noting, “Overwhelmingly the democratic will is that there should be an obligation on the Government to support this domestic labour but they have pushed a provision before us that only really gets rid of the over-sexist wording that frames domestic roles as solely a woman’s role. This provision is unlikely to give women or carers any substantive rights to support.”

“The Government’s wording is an attempt to make the Constitution look like it’s more progressive on its face, but this amendment is unlikely to actually progress any rights at all.”

And because it has taken so many years for this amendment to come, Houlihan says: “Some people hoped that there could be a progressive interpretation of Article 41.2 as it is, in the sense that women would not be forced to work and that they would support a woman’s choice through state financial support, but Article 41.2 historically has never given rise to such state support.”

In response to people encouraging a “no” vote to the proposed article 42B, Houlihan says: “Making it gender neutral does not erase the fact that it’s mostly women who perform such domestic roles, it just means that heterosexual couples where the man may prefer to ‘stay in the home’, or those who are not in heterosexual relationships can also potentially benefit.”

For those campaigning for a “no” vote on the Family Amendment, Houlihan questions: “But what do people mean when they say family?” She says: “They are not talking about family as it comes in its many forms … Ultimately, they are just recognising the nuclear family and purposely wish to not support a lot of people out there who exist differently. Irish society has changed. Many people now compared to the past do not believe that marriage as a legal construct is necessary for long, fulfilling, and loving relationships. If you really care about the welfare of the family as a social unit, whether they be single-parent families, unmarried families et cetera, you would recognise the need to update the legal definition of the family to reflect the social meaning.”

Reflecting on her connection with the proposed amendment, Houlihan says: “My mom got divorced a few years back. The support for single parents like her just is not there. In my late teens I was lucky to have my step-father come into my life and he has had an overwhelmingly supportive role. Yet, my mother, my step-father and I, we are not recognised as a family, even though I would recognise my step-father as my true father.”

“The passing of this amendment would mean a lot to me. My mother, my step-father and I, we could finally be seen as a family, that would be nice”

For anyone contemplating whether to use their vote or not, Houlihan acknowledges that while it can be looked at as both an improvement and a disappointment, “some change is better than no change. I guess we cannot expect legislative and constitutional reform to always occur perfectly in line with the democratic will.”

“Progress isn’t perfect, sometimes you have to do it incrementally.”

(Want to keep up to date with Trinity Women in Law’s latest debates? TWIL Volume III which focuses on sexual and reproductive health will be published on 11 March and their Mock trial will take place on 29 March).

Emma Rouine

Emma Rouine is the current Student Living Co - Editor and a Junior Sophister English Studies student. She previously served as Deputy Student Living Editor.