Carer’s Referendum Exposes Rot in Southern Constitution


On 8 March voters in the South face two referenda to change the constitution. The ‘Family Amendment’ vote proposes to extend constitutional recognition to all families, not just those based on marriage. As such it represents some further element of progress in Irish society.

As with the Marriage Equality vote in 2015, most working-class people will see this as a step in the right direction and it will likely be voted through. This has not stopped various right-wing politicians and commentators seeking to stir up nonsense arguments against the amendment. It is telling that many of these arguments are rooted in the potential impact on inheritance. As always, the Irish political elite are concerned to protect their property regardless of the damage they do to wider society.

Far more problematic is the so-called ‘Carer’s Amendment’. This seeks to remove from the constitution the archaic language of a ‘woman’s place is in the home’. This will be replaced by a constitutional recognition that the family remains the primary caregiver and that the State will ‘strive’ to provide support to this care.

Since its foundation in 1922 the State has consistently off-loaded caring responsibilities to religious orders and charities. No matter what party was in government, the policy remained the same: care is to be provided in the home supplemented by a mind-boggling array of poorly funded charities and religious orders. Over the past 100 years the State has provided woefully inadequate funding for these charities and shortfalls were often made up at the expense of poor pay and conditions for care staff.

An inevitable consequence of this situation is the unending series of court cases brought by families desperately seeking state support for dependents whose often complex care needs are not being met. The State, on a point of principle, fights these cases with a grim determination. It has no hesitation in imposing years and sometimes decades of additional suffering upon these families, while these cases make their way through the court system.

This attitude is rooted in the extreme fiscal conservatism of the Irish establishment which sees the provision of basic social services as fundamentally a waste of taxpayers’ money. Contrast this with the same establishment repeatedly bailing out business interests when they run into difficulty. The most recent example was when the banking sector crashed in 2008 the state overnight guaranteed the liabilities of all Irish banks, over 450 billion euro, based on a ‘back of an envelope’ calculation. The consequence of this was the 64 billion euro bank bailout and years of crushing austerity, which had a devastating impact on the disabled community and carers.

There is a growing backlash against the ‘Carer’s Amendment’ as people with disabilities and their families see that it will make no material difference to their lives. If the Carer’s Amendment passes, they will be left with an empty promise that the state will ‘strive’ to provide care. This, in effect, means the endless court cases will continue as the state seeks to define ‘strive’ in the meanest, most penny-pinching, way possible. One inevitable consequence of this will be a further curtailment of disabled people’s right to live independently with the necessary support.

Socialist Analysis

The socialist slogan ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ is a powerful orientating point in the debate on the Carer’s Amendment. A socialist society is not based on the accumulation of vast wealth and profits by a tiny elite. Instead, the wealth generated by our collective labour would be used to address human need, in all its complexity.

People would have a right to access support and funding to meet their needs. Instead of pretending to ‘strive’ to support the provision of care a socialist society would ensure that resources were available to those who need them. As there would be no billionaires or millionaires in a socialist society, the resources that these currently hoard would be put to better use.

The Carers’ Amendment referendum exposes the need for a universal public health system which includes a public care system. Funded by general taxation, this system would ensure that care needs were met and that stressful, time-consuming litigation would no longer be necessary.

Regardless of how the vote on this amendment goes on 8 March it is likely that there will be little improvement in the lot of those affected by it. A constitution under capitalism has as its primary focus the protection of the profit-system and the interests of those who benefit from this system.

This particular referendum has drawn out into public view one of the fundamental, of many, dysfunctions of the Irish state – its abdication of any responsibility for care. It is a shameful legacy and highlights, yet again, that the Irish ‘Republic’ is anything but for many of its citizens.