A Sudden Turn in Voter Sentiment Helped Quash Changes to Ireland’s Constitution

In early February, as a referendum approached that had been called by Ireland’s coalition government to consider two proposals to alter the country’s Constitution, polls showed that a clear majority of voters intended to support it.

Many analysts assumed it would be the latest in a series of votes in recent years amending the country’s 1930s-era Constitution to reflect Ireland’s increasingly secular and liberal identity.

But as the day of the referendum, held to coincide with International Women’s Day, drew closer, public opinion seemed to turn, with polls showing support for the “yes” vote plummeting. When voters cast their ballots on Friday, they delivered a definitive “no” to both proposed amendments — one to change long-criticized language about women’s duties being in the home and another to broaden the definition of family beyond marriage.

The outcome dealt a blow to a government hoping for an easy victory. But the result, far from being evidence that conservative values were sweeping the nation, reflected a complex stew of factors that, analysts say, is likely to force government soul-searching: a weak campaign for the amendments, confusion over the proposals and lower-than-expected voter turnout.

In the end, the campaign in favor of the measures was rushed and disjointed, confusion reigned over the language presented in the proposals and less than half of eligible voters turned out to the polls.

Laura Cahillane, an associate professor at the University of Limerick’s law school, said that while some opposed the substance of the proposed changes, “the vast majority of people just really didn’t understand it,” in part because of an ineffective campaign to pass the proposals.

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