Gendereferendums are hammered

Colette Colfer

Waterford Count Centre before the votes were spilled

I knew within minutes that it was a landslide ‘no/no’. I had arrived at the Waterford count centre just before 9, found a spot behind the red plastic barriers that surrounded the count-tables and braced myself. At that point I fully expected the result would be yes/yes.

The 39th amendment, the so called ‘family amendment’ was a proposal to expand the definition of family to include those founded on ‘durable relationships’. The 40th amendment was a proposal to delete Article 41.2 that recognises the support women in the home give to the State and asserts that the State will ‘endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity’ to work outside of the home ‘to the neglect of their duties in the home’. Recent opinion polls had showed a comfortable win for a yes/yes campaigners.

Once the returning officer declared the count open, the first tranche of black wheelie-bin sized boxes were spilled onto the count tables and the count began. Counters sorted ballots into bundles of white papers (the 39th referendum on durable relationships) and green papers (the 40th referendum on mothers).

I could see over their shoulders that the first ballots were all no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I saw around 20 ‘no’ white papers before I even saw a ‘yes’. I moved to another spot, thinking that box could have been an anomaly, but the pattern was repeating. I stood there like a fish - my mouth and eyes wide open in disbelief. I kept saying ‘oh my god oh my god’. My heart was hammering and I had the dizzy jitters of an adrenalin rush. Again and again at each box there was just a handful of ‘yes’ votes for dozens and dozens of those marked ‘no’. By 9.16 I texted friends: ‘Landslide no so far’.

I learned to tally as the morning progressed. At first I was trying to tally both green and white papers. I attempted to tally a box from Halla Pobail in Ring and counted 90 for no and 33 for yes on the green (mother) paper and 60 for no and 24 for yes on the white (durable relationship) paper.

Then I figured out it was better if I just focused on the green (mother) paper. From the box from Garrabane National School, Dungarvan, I counted 157 for no, only 55 for yes. St. Saviours, Ballybeg, Waterford City I counted 153 for no and just 25 for yes. Ballygunner, a suburban area just outside Waterford City was 160 for no and just 64 for yes. Melleray in West Waterford was 72 for no and 23 for yes. I chatted to a man in the count centre who had campaigned for a yes/yes vote. He said ‘it’s a bloodbath’.

Total electorate in the area was 85,910 with a turnout of around 43% - 36,839 ballot papers cast on the 39th amendment and 36,854 on the 40th.

There was a handful of Green Party members in the centre as well as one local Independent councillor, and one Sinn Fein TD. Later in the day I spotted a local Labour Party councillor hovering near the door. I didn’t see anyone from Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The count generated little interest even amongst politicians. I wonder, now, if the presence of the Green Party members could indicate that this referendum was more linked to this Government party?

The Irish Government, main opposition parties, and well-funded NGOs (non-governmental organisations) including the National Women’s Council of Ireland had all been pushing for the yes/yes result. NGOs had held campaign launches and publicity events including one front-page-style photo event of women arguing for a yes/yes who were dressed in stylish 1937 rig-outs. I thought the photo was lovely and got the sense that the women in 1937 were happy to get constitutional acknowledgement.

In the run up to polling day, Fine Gael had bright yellow posters calling for YES to family and care. It was clever. Who was going to say NO to family and care? But the Irish people weren’t conned and could see that really it was YES to durable relationships on a par with marriage and YES to the deletion of mothers from the constitution with no conferring of rights on carers or on people with disabilities.

Those calling for a no/no were in the minority. Independent Senators Michael McDowell led the charge. Senators Rónán Mullen, Sharon Keogan and Gerard Craughwell also called for a no/no. Senator Tom Clonan and TD Catherine Connolly called for a no on the 40th amendment. Grassroots women’s organisations including Women’s Space Ireland, The Countess, The Silenced Protest, Wicklow Women 4 Women and the Natural Women’s Council also all worked and campaigned tirelessly for a no/no.

The only political party that called for a no/no was Aontú whose sole TD Peadar Tóibín had participated in a number of high-profile broadcast debates. One stand-out TV moment that worked in the favour of no/no was the RTÉ Prime Time debate between Maria Steen and Tánaiste Micheál Martin. Steen calmly and beautifully eviscerated Martin who was left with soup on his face. Journalist Brenda Power also made an impact with her legal wisdom and natural wit in her opinion pieces.

A number of far-right groups with a strong anti-immigration stance had also been pushing for a no/no. Some posters appeared in recent weeks calling for a protection of Irish borders. It’s clear that recent discontent with immigration policy played a role in the resounding Government defeat.

My sense today, Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, is that the NGOvernment aren’t getting it. I’ve seen suggestions that the reason the Referendums were defeated is because people didn’t understand. But people did understand - the Referendums weren’t wanted and the amendments weren’t wanted. One person said to me this morning ‘it was a dog’s dinner’.

The referendums included the phrase ‘durable relationship’ - no-one had a clue what it referred to or what its implications would be. One woman suggested she had a durable relationship with her favourite chair. Another conversation was something like this:

‘Could it include throuples?’


‘No, throuples.’

By 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I made an unofficial call on the Waterford result. The trestle tables at the top of the room were stacked with ballots in piles of 1000s. I predicted the 39th Amendment would be defeated in Waterford by 32% yes to 68% no and that the 40th Amendment would be defeated by 23% yes to 73% no. The results late last night showed I was slightly off with my predictions on the 39th Waterford result which came in at 33% yes and 67% no. But I got the 40th amendment right.

The national result for the 39th Amendment was 67% no and 33% yes. The national result for the 40th Amendment was 74% no and just 26% yes. I think the Amendment to delete mothers from the constitution could be the biggest ‘no’ result in Irish referendum history.

My take on the referendums is that they were resoundingly defeated for a number of key reasons:

  • People want the constitutional acknowledgement of women and mothers retained. Motherhood is not gender-neutral. Fathers in the home should be acknowledged too but not at the expense of mothers.
  • People want more supports for carers and for people with disabilities.
  • The ‘durable relationships’ phrase was a nonsense.
  • There was no pre-legislative scrutiny; debates in parliament were guillotined; a Freedom of Information request asking for details of the Interdepartmental meetings was rejected. The public were kept in the dark.

The NGOvernment is not yet willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Both of these referendums were related to gender and were implicitly rooted in a stance that embraces gender ideology. My sense is that the NGOvernment will remain wilfully blind and will launch themselves into upcoming local and European elections with the same level of disconnect. The results will, again, be interesting.