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The welcome message of the Irish referenda

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2024

What happened in Ireland last week? The government strongly supported a pair of proposed constitutional amendments. The major political parties supported them. The media, the corporate elite, the liberal intelligentsia all supported them. But the people of Ireland, God bless them, sent both amendments down to decisive defeats in a national referendum.

The result is doubly surprising and encouraging because nine years ago, when a similar coalition of cultural elites backed the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, the Irish voters meekly agreed. Somehow the political tide shifted in the intervening years, and the people are no longer taking instructions. This year’s referendum result was a genuine example of self-government, with the popular will trumping the conventional wisdom of the ruling class.

How did it happen? The news about Ireland that travels across the Atlantic comes primarily from the people who supported the amendments; the opposition campaign received little coverage in the American media. But whatever the reasons, after years of moving steadily away from the Catholic principles on which their republic was founded, the Irish people have reversed their course.

As we reported in a CWN headline story, “The two proposed amendments…would have removed a passage of the country’s constitution that commits the government to supporting women’s work in the home, and changed a passage on marriage to include ‘other durable relationships.’” These were not sectarian issues, and the results should not be interpreted as a sudden revival of Catholic piety. But the voters’ ringing endorsement of the notion that the family is (as the constitution puts it) “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society” shows the enduring power of Catholic social thought.

Or should I simply say the power of common sense? The Catholic Church did not invent the family. Nor are Catholics alone in recognizing the enormous importance of the work that women do in their families’ homes. The Catholic social thought that guided the framing of Ireland’s constitution simply recognized the realities of human life, dictated not by the hierarchy but by the natural law.

The Iona Institute—one of the few Irish institutions that retains an interest in applying the natural law to family affairs—had commissioned a poll prior to the referendum, in which 69% of mothers with young children said they would prefer to stay at home with their children if they could. Article 41.2 of the constitution, the article that the proposed amendment would have altered, states that women should not be pushed into the labor force by “economic necessity.” Clearly most Irish women want their government to honor that pledge. Not surprisingly, after the votes were counted, the Iona Institute noticed that opposition to the proposed amendment was strongest in the neighborhoods where single mothers were most numerous.

In its campaign propaganda, the government had created the false impression that the text of the constitution suggests that women belong at home. By that inaccurate reading, the amendment was a step toward liberating women, allowing them to work outside the home if they wished. But the Irish people saw through that rhetorical ploy. The point, they recognized, was not that the constitution forced women to stay at home; the constitution provided that they should not be forced to leave their homes.

Since in fact tens of thousands of women are gainfully employed all over the country, one might question why the government thought it so important to eliminate the constitutional commitment to a mother’s right to remain at home. The amendment was obviously not necessary to give women the right to work. Was it then a bid to put more pressure on them to enter the workforce—to do exactly what Article 41.2 promised the government would not do?

Or was it another bid to denigrate the importance of marriage and family life? The second amendment, with its implication that any “durable relationship” is as good as a Christian marriage, was another deliberate step in that direction. It was, fortunately, a step that the people of Ireland refused to take.

”We didn’t do our job well enough,” lamented Mary Butler, the Minister of State. If Ireland’s government leaders think their “job” is to change popular opinion, rather than to carry out the popular will, they may be surprised again the next time the people cast their ballots. The great lesson to be learned from the Irish referenda—a lesson that ruling elites ignore at their peril—is that in a democracy, the government does not tell the people what to think.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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