Brussels, the 12th of February 2024

On the 8th March, Irish citizens will be voting in referendums to amend parts of its constitution. Two amendments will be on the ballot on International Women’s Day, with one of them possibly altering the definition of marriage and the family.

The first article that will be voted on currently commits to protecting “with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. The proposed amendment would change the wording to allow the state to recognise “the Family, whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships, as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society” (emphasis ours).

The second articles relates to the provision of care by members of the family. It would replace the original recognition that “by her life within the home, a woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. The new version, if it succeeds at the ballot box, would recognize “the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” (emphasis ours).

In Ireland, the need for a referendum on extending the definition of family in the constitution was recently questioned in light of a Supreme Court judgement on an unmarried father’s welfare entitlements. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the exclusion of the surviving unmarried father of three children from the widower’s contributory pension (WCP) was unconstitutional. The case raises the question of whether marriage should still have a unique role today, or whether it should be considered equal to other non-marital relationships. Angelo Bottone, Chairman of Family Solidarity Ireland (a member association of FAFCE), spoke to us about this issue and the need to rethink the unique role of the family parented by one man and one woman in marriage in today’s society:

FAFCE: We are following the latest developments in Ireland regarding the O´Meara case and the constitutional amendments with interest. It has been argued that unmarried families are de facto relegated to the second tier by the current wording of the constitution, as “the family” is “based” on marriage. There seem to be efforts to prevent marriage from being presented as something superior to other forms of life. What consequences do these endeavours have for the image of marriage as such?

AB: In all great civilisations marriage has been viewed as a unique institution, forming the bedrock of society. The State has an interest in promoting marriage because it is the best place for children to be born as it offers the stability of a mother and a father united in a publicly committed relationship. Non-married couples who wish to enjoy the same benefits of married ones are free to marry and those, instead, who choose not to marry, should not expect the same benefits without the same commitment. With this referendum proposal, the Government practically denies that there a fundamental difference between those couples.

FAFCE: How does the attitude towards marriage change in a society where non-marital relationships are considered equal and just as desirable as families based on marriage between a man and a woman?

AB: Marriage has no equal. Plenty of research has constantly proved that it offers the best environment to raise a stable family. The benefits of a two-parent married family for children’s emotional, educational, and social development are unique and not replicated in other arrangements.

We know that legislation shapes society, inspires policies, and might even stigmatise dissent. More significantly, legal norms not only follow but also lead changes in culture. The message from this referendum, if it passes, is that non-committed and non-publicly recognised relationships are not significantly different from marriage. As an inevitable consequence, promoting the special status of marriage will be perceived a form of discrimination. Marriage, which is already threatened by other forces, will be further weakened.

FAFCE: The proposed amendment will extend constitutional family status to people in “other durable relationships”. But the decision as to what “durable relationships” means in any case will be left to the courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court. Why should it not be for lawmakers to decide on minimal criteria to qualify a non-marital relationship for treatment as a family – an institution said to have inalienable and imprescriptible rights and duties and to be the fundamental unit group of our society? What could be the concrete consequences of an amendment proposal of this kind?

AB: The expression “durable relationships” is extremely vague. As undefined it would leave important legal interpretations to the judiciary, leading to unpredictability and inconsistency in how family relationships are recognised and treated under the law. While polygamy or polyamory have currently no legal recognition, nobody is prevented from being involved into multiple “durable relationships”. If the referendum passes, one particularly concerning possibility is the legal recognition of polygamous or polyamorous relationships under the guise of “family.” This could also drastically expand eligibility criteria for family reunification in Irish immigration law, leading to unforeseen and possibly unsustainable social and legal outcomes.

Moreover, in marriage, explicit consent is paramount, necessitating its clear expression before two witnesses and under the supervision of a solemniser. The State also knows exactly when it begins and when it ends. In contrast, the term “durable relationships,” nebulous as it is, lacks any formal stipulation for such explicit consent or established criteria for its verification and its duration. The proposal put forth by the referendum could potentially lead to the acknowledgment of familial status for relationships that may not be founded on mutual consent, provided they possess some appearance of durability. Also, “durable relationships” can be ended abruptly by one of the partners involved at any moment for no reason.

FAFCE: The state is at present free by law to remedy perceived injustices for those in durable relationships who are not married. With declining marriage rates, is it socially beneficial or wise to make non-marriage the easier, equal and increasing norm in the raising of children?

AB: The O’Meara case, which extended the widow’s pension to a non-married partner, proves that there is no need to change the Constitution to grant certain marital benefits to other situations. To what extent this Supreme Court decision was wise is debatable. Nonetheless, we, as Family Solidarity, believe that the current Constitution gives sufficient scope to legislators, or to the courts, to amend what might be considered as injustices, without altering the fundamental role that marriage has in the establishment of a family. A vote in the opposite direction would dilute the unique value of marriage, with detrimental effects on society. The government’s efforts to redefine family structures reflect a misunderstanding of the natural and social importance of marriage, risking the erosion of values that have long been considered central to societal health and stability. As we said in our manifesto, “this is not just a vote for the preservation of our cultural heritage, but a stand for the future stability and integrity of our nation.”