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Proposed Constitutional Changes Reflect Contemporary Ireland’s Secular Mindset

The republic’s political class seems determined to distance their nation from its Catholic legacy, but there are signs of pushback against some of the recent changes to Irish society.

The Republic of Ireland is currently considering constitutional changes that would further erode its Catholic heritage — but things were very different not so long ago.

When the future Pope St. Paul VI was an official at the Vatican’s diplomatic service in 1946, he confided in the then Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph Walshe, his view that “you are the most Catholic country in the world.”

The remark pleased Walshe very much, and he cabled back to the Ministry for External Relations in Dublin that he believed Ireland’s relationship with the Holy See was of “a very special character.”

The then Irish prime minister, known as the Taoiseach, was the towering Irish-American Éamon de Valera.

A former leader in the 1916 rebellion against British rule, de Valera rejected the peace treaty with Britain in 1921 because the six northeastern counties of Ireland would remain under British rule, and legislators in the new Irish Free State would be bound to swear an oath to the British monarch.

De Valera, though a Catholic and a Third Order Carmelite, had been excommunicated because of his opposition to the treaty and his role in the 1922-1923 Irish Civil War, during which his republicans were eventually defeated and reluctantly took the political path.

By 1932, de Valera was at the height of his power and the once-imprisoned subversive was elected Taoiseach. Five years later, in 1937, his vision for Ireland was copper-fastened when his new constitution was adopted in referendum.

The document sought to reflect the prevailing Catholic culture of the recently independent state.

But, if Pope Paul VI would no longer recognize the Catholic idyll he marveled at in the post-war gloom of Europe, Éamon de Valera, who died in 1975, would certainly find contemporary Ireland a strange place.

The current government — an uneasy coalition between Civil War rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with the addition of the Green Party — announced Dec. 5 that it wanted to make more changes to the Irish Constitution, to broaden the definition of the family via a referendum. An accompanying referendum would ask voters to delete an existing constitutional provision upholding the role of stay-at-home mothers.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced Dec. 5 that if the family referendum passes, the document will change the definition of the family to being either “founded on marriage or on other durable relationships.”

It’s further proposed to remove the reference to marriage as the institution upon which the “family is founded.”

This move comes just eight years after Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex civil marriage via a referendum, after voters opted by a nearly 2-1 majority to redefine marriage in the constitution as between two people “without distinction as to their sex.”

More was to come. In 2018, voters opted to legalize one of the most permissive abortion regimes in Europe, overturning a pre-independence ban on abortion and removing constitutional protection for the unborn by an even bigger margin.

As 2023 draws to a close, figures from the Health Service Executive reveal that the country now has around 10,000 abortions per year.

Downgrading Marriage?

David Quinn, CEO of the pro-family think tank the Iona Institute, has warned that the proposed new referendum on redefining the family to include relationships other than marriage would be a “further downgrading of the importance of marriage to society.”

Quinn told the Register that he would see the rewording as “indicating that the state does not see any special value in the institution of marriage.”

In a separate vote, citizens will be asked whether they want to delete the so-called “mothers-in-the-home” section where the document currently “recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”

The Irish Constitution obliges the government to “endeavor to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

However, if passed, the referendum would delete this and instead recognize “that 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 and shall strive to support such provision.”

Quinn also had reservations about this proposal.

“We note that the proposed replacement to the section on mothers in the home no longer mentions the home at all. This seems highly significant. Why not mention the home? The government could make the language in this section gender-neutral but still give special mention to the home and its value to people,” he said.

“But this fits in with the overall government philosophy, which seems to prioritize the economy over the home and wishes as many people as possible to become members of the workforce and taxpayers.”

Tensions Over Diversity

For Mary Kenny, veteran commentator and author of the acclaimed book on 20th-century Irish Catholicism The Way We Were, there may be something else going on behind the scenes from the government’s point of view.

“I wonder if these suggested alterations are also a dress rehearsal for tackling a bigger question: the commitment to Christianity, which remains in the constitution’s preamble,” she told the Register.

The current constitutional preamble states: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred” and goes on to acknowledge obligations to “our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.”

According to Kenny, “many in the political class would abolish this ornate introduction to the Irish Constitution, on grounds of diversity and modernization.”

“For the moment, wiser counsels probably advise leaving well enough alone. But it is surely in the pipeline,” she warned.

Diversity has become a wider question in the public square in Ireland in recent weeks, after rioters rampaged through the Irish capital on Nov. 23.

The riot was sparked after a stabbing attack outside a Catholic school in inner-city Dublin. The alleged suspect is an immigrant of North African origin, and as word of this spread, some anti-immigrant voices were interjected in the midst of the trouble.

While police were quick to state that the riots had nothing to do with immigration and were more a consequence of opportunism and criminal elements, the shock has put immigration firmly on the political agenda, with questions about how sustainable a huge increase in net immigration actually is.

The latest statistics show that more than 1 million of the Irish Republic’s population of 5.1 million was not born in the country, and the government projects that about 100,000 new immigrants will arrive each year, drawn by a buoyant economy.

‘Growing Unease’

Peadar Tóibín, leader of the Aontú party, has been in the forefront of calling for a “respectful” debate on immigration in Ireland. He believes that other political parties are avoiding an issue that people want to talk about, citing a recent opinion poll showing that three-quarters of voters had concerns about immigration.

There are signs that the government may be inclining towards a more restrictive approach. It was announced Dec. 12 that weekly financial support for immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine would be slashed from 220 euros per week to just 38.80 euros per week, and free accommodation would no longer be indefinite but for a fixed period of 90 days instead.

“There is no doubt there is a growing unease and concern among many people in Ireland around the issue of immigration,” Tóibín told the Register.

“Our view is very simple: There needs to be sustainable levels of immigration in this country; it needs to be managed.”

Source : Register