We need to redefine what ‘family’ is in Ireland

We need to change how we redefine ‘the family’ in modern Ireland, so says Chairperson of the Labour Party, Cork South Central, Shane O’Meara, ahead of an online meeting next Monday
We need to redefine what ‘family’ is in Ireland

Shane O’Meara, Chairperson, The Labour Party, Cork South Central.

IRELAND has a family problem that you may not know about.

In Ireland, the only legally recognised family is that created through marriage. Any other grouping of people who are mutually supportive or dependant, who may be living together, related or not, are simply not considered a family in Irish law.

The list of those currently not recognised as families include cohabitating couples with or without children; siblings or other combinations of relatives; step-children who were not adopted before turning 18 and their step-parents; formerly fostered children who are now adults and may have strong ties to their foster families; friends who are unmarried and play a significant part in each other’s lives, etc.

Significant numbers of people are affected by this. In the 2016 census, there were 76,715 cohabiting couples without children and 75,587 cohabiting couples with children. All 152,302 of these cohabiting couples are in a legally precarious position. 

This involves more than 300,000 people with few or no rights under law and no recognition in the constitution. If a tragic event or separation occurs they face consequences families formed in marriage do not.

There are various definitions, acknowledgements and understandings of what ‘the family’ entails in our public services. However, these are completely at the discretion of the agencies involved.

The law clearly discriminates between married and unmarried family units in a variety of ways. In a crisis, there can be significant issues recognising decision makers with regard to care and medical matters. In death, not only can inheritance issues arise, the surviving partner of an unmarried family is not entitled to widow(er)s pension regardless of the length of relationship or dependent children they might have to support. They can also face issues with Capital Acquisitions Tax on mortgage insurance payouts.

Adopting the UN Definition of the Family Ireland is at variance with European law on this matter and our narrow definition of ‘The Family’ is very limited by international standards.

The Labour Party in Cork South Central is advocating for the adoption of the U.N. definition as the basis for the recognition of family formation in Ireland.

The UN Definition of the Family 1994 describes; “Any combination of two or more persons who are bound together by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibility for, inter alia, the care and maintenance of group members, the addition of new members through procreation or adoption, the socialisation of children and the social control of members.”

We also propose that in order to facilitate and regulate the declaration of a family unit, an instrument called a ‘State Registered Family’ should be adopted. Families falling within the U.N. definition would be given state recognition by way of a system of registration.

Based on consent and the agreement of all parties, it would also ensure equality of treatment with married families as well as catering for succession rights and the distribution of assets on dissolution.

Criticisms of this Proposal

Criticisms of the U.N. definition of the family, mainly from the religious right wing in the United States of America, see the family unit of a man and woman in marriage as deserving of privilege, focused on reproduction, limited to hetrosexual couples and promoting rigid gendered roles. This limited view of the family was evident when the Constitution of Ireland was written in 1937. Article 41, “The Family”, reflects this ideological positioning including the emphasis of a woman’s place being in the home.

However, then as now our society involves groupings of people who have mutual ties of care and responsibility, who may be living together, related or not. These relationships benefit the lives of those involved and wider society. The state should provide a facility for these relationships to be recognised and protected in law.

Constitutional Change

In order to legally recognise the modern family, a constitutional change by referendum will be required.

Moving a constitutional change in the Dáil and advocating for a referendum is a significant task. It involves individuals, political and civil society groups campaigning and advocating for change in a concerted and organised campaign. However, the principle of this proposal and the benefits it can provide to families and our society is worth this effort.We also know from our recent history that constitutional change is possible and required to both reflect and benefit our modern Republic.

National conference

The proposal to adopt the U.N. definition of family is being brought by Cork South Central Labour members as a motion to the Labour Party National conference on November 13.

Online public meeting

The Labour Party in Cork South Central are also arranging a public meeting online next Monday, November 1, 8pm on the Labour Party’s national Facebook page to explore this issue further. Speakers will include:

Professor Louise Crowley, Law Department, U.C.C., who will set the current legal context of how ‘he family’ is defined.

Karen Kiernan, CEO, One Family Ireland, will highlight the practical issues, realities and consequences of the current system for families outside of marriage.

Ivana Bacik, T.D. will focus on how change can occur and what is involved from a political perspective.

Shane O’Meara will chair the event. He said: “We are absolutely delighted that experts and campaigners in this field with a national profile have agreed to speak at an event that promises to highlight the need for change in how we define ‘the family’ in modern Ireland."

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