14 March, 2024

Ireland referendum embarrassment for politicians shows what happens if you don’t listen to citizens

Last weekend Irish voters served politicians the largest-ever referendum defeat in Ireland’s history, resoundingly rejecting proposals to update strands of the Irish constitution relating to family roles and the duties of women. Voters were asked to vote on two changes and strongly rejected both:  67% rejected the family amendment, and 74% rejected the care amendment.

A lacklustre campaign, confused messaging and rushed campaigning have all been blamed for the defeat. But a key factor was that the government watered down recommendations made by Ireland’s citizens’ assembly.

The result demonstrates the importance of following through on citizens’ assemblies recommendations if you want to secure buy-in from the wider electorate. Or, as Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, put it: “There is little point in having a Citizens Assembly if the government are then going to ignore the outcome.”


What citizens proposed 

In 2018 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar committed to a 100-person Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality to resolve the question of how to amend an outdated wording that referred to ‘women in the home’. This assembly took place in 2019 and sat through the pandemic, making recommendations in June 2021. They concluded that ‘Article 41.2 of the Constitution should be deleted and replaced with language that is not gender specific and obliges the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community.’

Before that in 2014, the Convention on the Constitution (involving 66 randomly selected citizens and 33 cross-party and cross-border politicians) had advised that Article 41.2 should be replaced with a mandate on the state to provide “a reasonable level of support” to carers both “in the home” and “beyond the home”.

In December 2022, the all-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality ratified the Citizens’ recommendation, advising that the Government hold a Referendum to replace Article 41.2 with the following wording: ‘The State recognises that care within and outside the home and Family gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, take reasonable measures to support care within and outside the home and Family.’


What citizens were actually offered

However, the Government decided to take these amendments in two parts and changed the thrust of the questions from what had been recommended by the Convention on the Constitution, the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Committee. 

Opposition parties supported the referendum but without enthusiasm, complaining that the two questions put to the public distorted the recommendations that had been produced by the Citizens’ Assembly.

The use of the undefined phrase "durable relationships" in the first referendum question was widely criticised as too vague, and the second proposed amendment pledged that the government would "strive", but crucially not be obliged, to support carers in the home. The amendment also failed to mention care outside of the home causing some disability groups and carers to campaign against it. 

National Women’s Council Director Orla O’Connor said to newspaper The Journal “We certainly know there’s a proportion of No voters who wanted wording to go further and felt that this referendum wasn’t delivering enough” 



Several factors played a part in the no-vote outcome, which are still being unpicked. But there’s a cautionary tale here about not engaging properly with reasonable citizens’ assembly recommendations, taking citizens for granted, and assuming that politicians know better. 

If the citizens’ assemblies’ wording had been followed through, the yes vote would have been energised. But instead, yes voters failed to turn out in numbers; turnout was lower than in previous referendums. And in its absence the no vote found favour for both progressive and conservative reasons.  

If a government deviates from citizens' assembly recommendations without clearly explaining why, it can appear opportunistic, high-handed and end up publicly embarrassed. It destroys goodwill, by disregarding the hard work of assembly members who participated in deliberations, and makes it harder to engage and win over the wider public.Trust is a two-way street, and as we saw with France’s failure to deliver on the French Climate Assembly proposals, trust in politicians is undermined when they undermine the reasonable recommendations of a representative group of citizens who have worked hard to make them through a citizens’ assembly process.


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