Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] made a surprise resignation speech on 20 March. He indicated various reasons behind the decision, including ‘political and personal’ factors. An important factor will have been the recent humiliating defeat of the three-party ruling coalition’s referenda. Militant Left (CWI Ireland) looks at the reasons for the heavy defeat and lessons for the Left in Ireland.

On 8 March, voters in the South of Ireland decisively rejected both the ‘Family’ and ‘Care’ referenda. The scale of the ‘no’ votes to both were a considerable surprise to all and unpredicted. One incorrect conclusion drawn by some is that these votes represent some sort of shift to the right or even far right. This is not the case.

A more accurate conclusion would focus on the confusing nature of both votes. An added factor was a clear desire to kick back against an out-of-touch government. The crass opportunism of holding the vote on 8 March, International Women’s Day, can’t have helped either.

Family referendum: wording the key issue

The rejection of the ‘Family’ referendum is a blow to many whose family structures do not match the traditional one based upon marriage. The confusion about the proposed change of text, of what a ‘durable relationship’ meant, was probably the decisive factor in the ‘no’ vote. No-one in the government, from the Taoiseach (prime minister) right down to backbench TDs (MPs), could give any coherent explanation of what a ‘durable relationship’ would mean if this referendum was accepted. And we now know that some government TDs campaigned for ‘yes’ but voted ‘no’!

This lack of clarity allowed prominent right-wing figures, particularly lawyers like Michael McDowell and Maria Steen, to exploit ambiguity in the amendment’s wording to sow doubt in people’s minds.

Disabled people mobilise to defeat the Care amendment

In the weeks leading up to the vote, there was a concerted mobilisation of disabled people, and their carers and advocates, to call for a ‘no’ vote in the Care referendum. This mobilisation rightly focused on the severe limitations of the use of the word ‘strive’ in the proposed amendment.

As people who have been at the very sharpest edge of the Irish state’s capacity for cruelty since 1922, disabled people and their carers correctly intuited that this word would be used to restrict the state’s responsibility to provide meaningful care and the right to live independently. This intuition has been confirmed by a subsequent report in The Irish Times newspaper, that officials in the Department of Finance believed that the word “strive” was chosen explicitly “…to avoid a concrete and mandatory obligation to provide support.”

Care referendum poses severe challenge for the left

The Care referendum posed a severe challenge to the left and labour movement. If the proposed amendment was rejected, the archaic language of a ‘woman’s place is in the home’ would remain in place. But, if the amendment succeeded, the wording could see disabled people placed in an even worse position in their struggle to receive meaningful care from the state. It would have also meant that the family would remain almost solely responsible for the provision of care to disabled people, with the state’s role merely to ‘strive’ to support this. As Marxists, our position is that care should be provided by the state through the public health system. Families should not have to shoulder this responsibility.

People Before Profit [which has several TDs] campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. In an article on 6 March, it argues correctly that, regardless of the result, it would be necessary to continue to fight for carer and disability rights. Despite its official position in support of a ‘yes’ vote in this referendum, many grassroots members publicly supported and called for a ‘no’ vote.

The Socialist Party [which has one TD and is not affiliated with the Socialist Party in England and Wales] campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote in the Care referendum right up to 4 March, four days before the vote, at which point they abruptly shifted to calling for a ‘no’ vote. The ostensible reason they gave for this was that they had listened to disabled activists and carers and decided, as a consequence, to call for a rejection of the Care amendment.

Before the Socialist Party’s U-turn, by applying a Marxist analysis, Militant Left (CWI Ireland) had clearly identified the problematic nature of the Care referendum. (see ‘‘Carer’s referendum’ exposes rot in Ireland’s capitalist constitution’)

Limits of ‘parliamentary socialism’

As these referenda proved, socialist forces in parliament face real dilemmas when called upon to take a position on changes to a capitalist constitution. Under capitalism, these are reactionary documents. The Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, is no different.

The Care referendum is a good example of how socialist organisations are sometimes forced to take a position on a terrain not of their choosing. This can lead to political confusion, errors, opportunism and, ultimately, demoralisation.

Following the votes on 8 March, no new rights or advances have been won. The status quo remains in place. Many families remain on legally uncertain ground, while disabled people must continue to face the ferocity of the Irish state in their fight for a better life.

It is impossible to build, under conditions of capitalism, the type of health and care system that genuinely meets human need. The tension between the capitalists’ demands for profit and the need to provide decent care can never be resolved.

The degeneration of the care system in England, following its take-over by ‘for-profit’ care providers, is a clear warning of what ‘striving’ to provide care could mean in practice. We need to build mass struggle by the working class to push for a decent care system in the here and now. We need to build a revolutionary force of the working class to end capitalism, once and for all.