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Ireland’s referendum was a rejection of Dublin liberalism

Leo Varadkar speaks to the media inside Dublin Castle on Saturday. Credit: Getty

March 10, 2024 - 8:50pm

Dublin

“Clearly, the government got it wrong,” is what the stoic, defeated Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said as Ireland’s family and care referendums were heavily defeated this weekend.

The rushed vote was held symbolically on International Women’s Day to, in Varadkar’s words, continue Ireland’s route along “the pathway of liberalism”. Yet voters delivered a sudden detour in a more conservative direction, despite appeals for a “yes” vote from nearly all the political parties, as well as heavily funded civil society groups.

Over two-thirds of the national public rejected a proposal to amend the Irish Constitution — Bunreacht na hÉireann — to eliminate the word “mother” and replace it with a vague reference to care, and over 70% voted against expanding the definition of family to include those based on marriage and “other durable relationships”.

The turnout of 44% was relatively high compared to previous referendums, while the majority of members of the two main parties Fine Gael (53%) and Fianna Fáil (76%) as well as the main opposition party Sinn Féin (78%), voted against the proposals.

Where some senior Irish politicians admitted defeat, though, many in the political and media class instead chose to make excuses, arguing that the public simply didn’t understand what they were being asked.

“We could have done more to make it clear,” Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty told national broadcaster RTÉ shortly after the results. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party would “return to” the “sexist language” in the Constitution if elected to the next government. Tánaiste and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin claimed that “the need for continued action to support families and to respect principles of equality was not challenged.”

Really, the public understood perfectly well what they were voting for, and issued a resounding “no” to the proposals on the grounds that the constitution, as it stands, is not sexist or discriminatory towards anyone. Ironically, it was the government which did not understand what it was proposing.

Throughout the campaign, government ministers could not confirm whether or not “durable relationships” would lead to polygamy being recognised as a family. One minister even implied a bigamous arrangement could constitute a “durable relationship”.

In echoes of the complacency that preceded the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the Irish establishment badly misjudged the coming result. Indeed, practically all Irish domestic polling indicated the proposals would pass.

The government hoped for a victory lap before the European and local elections later this year, apparently longing to bask in the glory of sweeping progressive momentum. Yet polling and public opinion was largely viewed through the prism of affluent, bien pensant south Dublin; when it came to the vote, Ireland’s forgotten counties delivered the hammer blow.

County Donegal rejected the family proposal by a whopping 80% and the care amendment by 83%. The sea of red (representing the “no” vote) compared to the tiny dot of blue for “yes” shows quite clearly the class and political divide in Ireland: south Dublin versus the rest of the country.

The scene in Dublin Castle following the result was relatively subdued, despite the overwhelming victory. Previous referendums on gay marriage in 2015 and abortion in 2018 passed comfortably and brought jubilant supporters to the Castle to celebrate, but this time Ireland’s police force had issued a Section 21 Order preventing anyone except tourists from entering the premises. A stage set up to celebrate the expected victory for the “yes” side was dismantled when it became clear the result was heading in the opposite direction.

The few politicians who had opposed the referendum were present at the site, including Senator Michael McDowell and Aountú leader Peadar Tóibín. Independent Senator Rónán Mullen, who also opposed the referendum, stated that “the people […] don’t like to have half-baked ideas pushed at them, they do actually know what they want.” He added, “They have voted resoundingly to keep a special reference to mothers […] that they shouldn’t be forced by economic necessity out of the home, and they have voted also to keep a link between marriage and the family.”

In the last decade, voters previously overwhelmingly approved cementing gay marriage into the constitution and legalising abortion. But with polarisation and culture wars seeping into the Irish body politic, it remains to be seen whether this latest referendum is an exception or part of a growing Irish disillusionment with liberalism.


Theo McDonald is a writer based in Ireland.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Thankyou for this article. Its been disturbing to see most of the media and political class in Ireland treat this as some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the electorate.
This vote was a clear decision to affirm family based on the legal implications of marriage which are entered in to freely and knowledgeably and the clear affirmation of the role and standing of motherhood in the constitution.
The amazing thing really is that the people who voted for this have no effective representation in parliament.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
4 months ago

It was just, or even mainly, a rejection of liberalism. It was a rejection of the priorities of the entire political, media and NGO establishment, pushing language they didn’t understand the implications of themselves into the Constitution while studiously ignoring the real problems of the country. Cost and inconvenience has been piled on people and small businesses, particularly outside Dublin, while a wrecking ball has smashed into the tourism sector, as hotels have been taken out of the market and crammed full of unprocessed asylum seekers at enormous public expense. They poked the bear of public anger with these referenda, and the sad thing is the opposition are as Woke, complacent and out of touch as the government.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Great comment. This has absolutely nothing to do with liberalism.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The astonishing symbolism of dismantling the winners’ podium when it became clear that they weren’t going to be the winners!

That’s not very liberal.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
4 months ago

Ireland is, and always has been, a massively conformist society. If you are not with the programme you are on the outside. The programme changes, but the conformism doesn’t.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
4 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Very much looking forward to Charles Stanhope’s contribution to this discussion!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Great point. Angel Nagle, writer of Kill All Normies, made this point recently. We have jettisoned reactionary Catholicism for some weird hybrid American corporate/Dublin establishment liberalism which is vacuous and ultimately superficial, not to mention a pain in the a..e. If you are not onboard with this you are either a racist, bigot, sexist, or a transphobe. Truth is, they don’t care about ideology, they care about power and telling others how to live and think. I was educated by nuns and priests in the 80s. There exuded, although not from all of them, a hectoring, condescending moralism. Strangely enough, or maybe not, I get exactly the same energy from the ‘new liberals’. Never trust dogmatism, from whatever angle it is coming from.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

This may well be the case, but conformism with what? This referendum represents to me the exact opposite.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
4 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

I agree. I was astonished at the craven compliance with even the most absurd Covid era restrictions. 5Km curfews obeyed in remote rural areas with more sheep than people? Woodland walks locked down because people could encounter each other in the open air? It seemed mostly people from the UK or Eastern Europe thought it as insane as I did. Irish Times stopped allowing comments on all articles in 2020 and they haven’t resumed since. Not a whimper of protest there either. You can comment on UK or NY Times or here. I mean this all points to a seriously compliant population. It really does.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It was great comment – but it is a rejection of liberalism, because the logic of liberalism has always been towards a corrosive individualism …contained by either the state (the socialist forms) or the market (the libertarian/’Neo-liberal’ forms). Liberal modernity was revolutionary precisely because it rejected the family, the intergenerational obligations and place-bound forms of community that are both bigger than and a condition for the individual. It was Judeo-Christianity that gave us the Imago Dei. But the Christian understanding of individual freedom was never unconstrained self-assertion, but a rather a vision liberation through constraint – of maximal devotion to God, and to family, community, neighbours/strangers.
Once you take family and motherhood out of the equation…..you really are in a kind of Cartesian, ghost in the machine lunacy of unhinged ‘self-made’ ‘self-determining’ bearer of every expanding rights and zero obligations…..to such an extent that on the backside of sex-robots, VR porn, drugs, technological enhancement …..and AI…..the end-game of liberalism is post-humanism…..The complete dissolution of any meaningful understanding of what it is to be human.
So the choice is either Judeo-Christian natural law, the Imago Dei and individuals, joyfully/frustratedly tied into a tissue of mutual obligation (aka self-denying love, relationality) ….or via liberalism a Gnostic horror show of self-assertion, self-actualization, and self destruction.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I disagree that it is a rejection of liberalism as nobody really wants the alternatives, it is a rejection of the insanity that has infected liberalism which is progressively making it less and less truly liberal and more authoritarian and in some case totalitarian.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Agreed. My first line had a typo – should have read “It wasn’t just, or even mainly, a rejection of liberalism”!

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
4 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Too bad, because it was. Not ALL liberalism, just that social liberalism has reached, and perhaps exceeded its reasonable limits.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
4 months ago
Reply to  Corrie Mooney
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
4 months ago

I’m not so sure the vote was a rejection of libearlism. The proposals were just so badly worded, and the “yes” campaign so poorly organized, it was just more of a rejection of pure shite than anything else.

The “no” campaigners were from all parts of society. Some “no” campaigners from the progressive side said the proposals did not go far enough. Other more conservative campaigners said the proposals went too far. Farmers’ groups were worried the “family” proposal would undermine farmers’ ability to pass on their farm to their children. People were worried when the Taoiseach said “durable relationships” meant what was in EU law and when his own minister said the complete opposite. People were worried again when a junior minister said the proposals would lead to more immigration, and when the justice minister said… the complete opposite. It was a case of “don’t know, vote no”.

People were also insulted at the idea of erasing the word “mother” from the constitution two days before Mother’s day. Mothers were annoyed that schools were closed on polling day – all to facilitate the gimmick of running the referenda on International Women’s Day.

Overall, and to use Malcom Tucker’s phrase, it was an omnishambles – and the vote was a rejection of chaos more so than anything else.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
4 months ago

David Ryan
David Ryan
4 months ago

I don’t agree. It seems to me that the vote was as much a protest against the Irish government and its blinkered “progressive” policies as anything else. You won’t find too many in the mainstream media acknowledging that unfortunately.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  David Ryan

Same sex marriage got up comfortably though, right? I would have thought that proposal was far more “progressive” than this one.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago

There is a solid third of the electorate in Ireland who will vote no to any liberal proposal and the lower the poll is, the stronger their showing will be. About a third are liberal. The remaining third are divided between those who are pragmatic or those who go with the wind. As soon as things began to look rocky for the Government, these went for the ‘no’ side.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
4 months ago

If the Irish keep aborting the baby Irish, there will soon be no more Irish. Just saying ……

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

No problem. Lots of first world countries have low birth rates. They’ll just have to let in more immigrants.

Leigh A
Leigh A
4 months ago

This sounds remarkably similar to last year’s referendum in Australia on an indigenous ‘Voice’ entity in the constitution. The proposal immediately led to confusion, and the campaign by supporters simply made things worse. I’d sum up their message as: “This is a vital generational change that will guarantee sweeping, meaningful outcomes for indigenous people. But also, it’s a modest advisory body that will have no power to force governments to take action, or even listen, to their proposals.”

No contradiction at all, right? Add to this mix a chorus of cynical corporates loudly proclaiming their support for the Voice, and constant claims that any opposition or even innocent questioning of the proposal was ‘obviously’ rooted in ignorance and racism, and it’s no surprise that the Yes campaign barely managed 40% of the vote. A compulsory vote, mind you – it wasn’t just the extremes on either side coming out for this one.

The lesson is that to get overwhelming support for change, it’s important to bring the community along for the journey and show them that the proposal will work, and not have nasty consequences that were missed or ignored at the very beginning. It takes more time to achieve success, but it’s more likely to be lasting. Case in point was Australia’s 2016 plebiscite on gay marriage: after years of grassroots campaigning, the proposal won 60% of the vote and has been a non-issue ever since. All because of the long term groundwork to normalise gay people in society and dispel nasty myths about the gay community. A gay marriage bill a decade earlier risked being under constant threat of repeal, while serving as a catalyst for reactionary political movements years before they emerged elsewhere in the West.

Sadly, our political/institutional elite class seems incapable of learning this lesson. They seem to believe that if they just force through change, an overwhelmingly passive electorate will eventually embrace the change and not harbour any long term resentment or anger at the methods used. They are wrong, and this carelessness (or perhaps callous arrogance) is directly fueling the very civil unrest and instability that they fear.

I sincerely hope that a new generation of leaders reach this same conclusion and take a more sensible, long term approach to change. Because if they don’t, well, I’d suggest reading about the Spanish Civil War for a sneak peek of our future.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

Excellent analysis.
Nothing i could add to that, except to despair at that awful kitsch painting behind Varadkar’s right shoulder.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
4 months ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Hahaha! Very true.
And if he decided to be photographed next to that abominal ‘painting’, chances are that he likes it. Enough said 😉

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

That was my immediate reaction as well – the Voice all over again. All the institutions, all the politicos – they are so disconnected from ordinary people they have no idea what they want

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

Good point. The “Yes” campaign in the Australian referendum was hampered by the worst advertising campaign I have ever seen. It was pitched solely to people who were going to vote “Yes” anyway, and completely ignored swinging voters.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I rather suspect that any “swinging voters” were likely to vote “yes” !

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I definitely don’t think that was the case. When the Referendum was announced, polls said “Yes” would win, but they started a downward trend as soon as the campaign started, and never recovered.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

Good point. A phrase I’ve found myself uttering a lot over the past few years in a number of situations is: “not all change can happen at the pace you want”.
Patient, plodding transformation is boring and not very flash, but it tends to be more sustainable. You can’t drag people forward; leaders should be like shepherds gently steering a flock from behind, not like impatient horsemen trying to get a nervous horse over a bridge by yanking on its bit, cursing and whipping.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

By the end of your life you and your fellow progressives will have re-normalised a race-based social hierarchy, male sexual violence and religious fanaticism. Through non-European immigration and frankly psychotic ideologies the left will have achieved the “transformation” of Western society back to the global norm, which they will deem ‘progress’.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Don’t be absurd. Having noted her contributions to Comments, characterising KE in that manner is the height of incongruity, and says far more about you than her.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
4 months ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

She’s a ten-a-penny progressive who, unlike Mary Harrington, will never examine whether her intuitions and instincts will produce a world she wants to live in. IIRC she moved to Austria and complains that they don’t want foreigners there, while she does something or other to ‘integrate’ foreigners into an unwilling Austria.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Ireland has changed leaps and bounds in my lifetime. If you’d told a 15 year old me (45 years ago) that Ireland would legalise same sex marriage in my lifetime, I’d have fallen about laughing.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

I am not sure the analogy holds. Had the Australian question been split into two, then the answers would have been yes, no. It was the tacking on the second bit and trying to sneak it under the cover of the first that caused the rejection of the single question.
The good news in both these stories is that they are forced to asked the people in a referendum and they are going to have to listen to the answer – compare this to all the EU treaties and to Brexit where the elites have either avoided asking the people or ignored the answer when they got one they did not like.

David Mayes
David Mayes
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

The referenda are very similar. Both electorates had been indulging ‘progressive’ social change campaigns over past decades and given them the benefit of the doubt. But no more. They now see that these social change campaigns are insatiable, inauthentic, divisive and are leading to regressive outcomes and that there actually was a slippery slope and they don’t like sliding down it.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  David Mayes

Same sex marriage got up easily enough in both countries though, right? That strikes me as far more “progressive” than this.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
4 months ago
Reply to  Leigh A

There’s a reason for their ambiguity and apparent confusion. They are lying when they try to placate the electorate.
And the voters know it.

Jonathon
Jonathon
4 months ago

When ‘liberal’ laws are passed it’s because the public are fully behind it and are super progressive.
When ‘liberal’ laws are not passed, it’s because the law just wasn’t written or promoted correctly.
Could it not just be (controversially) that the public rejected the law?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
4 months ago
Reply to  Jonathon

No, it’s because the public are not properly educated enough to listen to their betters.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago

If the change you are being presented with hasn’t been thought through properly, then it’s really better to stay with the tried-and-trusted status quo, however old-fashioned it might appear.
I guess the average voter isn’t as daft as their rulers might think and prize a functioning and stable constitution over scoring a few points and PR ops with international lovies who have very little in common with Average Jo(e).

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

“many in the political and media class instead chose to make excuses, arguing that the public simply didn’t understand what they were being asked” !!!
Brexit and Trump all over again. They just never learn. And certainly never listen to real people. And – just like Brexit and Trump – they don’t care about people in rural areas.
And – just as with Brexit – blaming the voters rather than owning up to their own errors.
Besides which, of all the things on the Irish government’s priority list, is tweaking a few words in the Constitution really a) at the top and b) going to make much real difference ?
But no – we live in the age of “performative politics” where talk and posturing are the only things that apparently matter.
How long before we see a “far right” (i.e. traditional and sensible) party emerging in Ireland ?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago

“despite appeals for a “yes” vote from nearly all the political parties” More evidence that politicians across the board are badly out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve? Surely not

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
4 months ago

Varadkar’s “liberalism” is anything but. It was another step along the way to greater authoritarianism.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

He was posturing as a conservative until he became a government minister.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
4 months ago

…. many in the political and media class instead chose to make excuses, arguing that the public simply didn’t understand what they were being asked.

That’s about right, the public are thick and don’t understand, where have I heard that before.
I dare say they’ll keep having referenda on the issue until the proles change their mind.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
4 months ago

“Clearly, the government got it wrong,” is what the stoic, defeated Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said 
Absolutely-they called a referendum

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
4 months ago

The sheer stupidity and ignorance of the Dublin 4 classes! Anything to do with your mammy here in Ireland is absolutely sacrosanct. I don’t say that disparagingly. The familial bonds here in Ireland are incredibly strong and a source of huge stability. Hence the enormous support for the small number of determined people who fought this vile proposal.
Interestingly, the NO vote encompassed a wide spectrum of class and education: these were not “deplorables” although Mr Veradker immediately sought to insinuate that they just hadn’t
“understood “ the message!

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago

I’m sure Dr Varadkar’s own Irish ‘mammy’ (his mother is Irish; his father Indian) had something to say to him about this.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
4 months ago

Its not “liberalism”: its rabid progressivism, where everything goes. Vote the wrong way? Well vote again. And we’ll bribe you with Big Money. Note that the attacks on Ireland’s traditions are ALWAYs about sex: marriage, abortion, the role of women, family. Its relentless. Why? Smash the family, the vehicle of property transmission.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
4 months ago

The media were still explaining it away even after it was clear that the No vote had won by a whopping majority. This may indicate a shift in public perception of the elites who run the country, but I’m not betting on it.
Brings to mind an old Soviet quip (apologies if I’ve posted it here previously).
The Russians equipped their TVs with windscreen wipers so that they could remove the spittle when watching current affairs programs.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
4 months ago

Don’t you just love all the excuses for having a majority NO vote in the Irish referendum. I did not hear one comment that wouild have caused to me to change my mind. They lost because they are anti-woke and pro-family.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter Lee

Well, when this sort of thing happens in Ireland, I go to the New York Times, the Guardian and Le Monde with pleasure, because I absolutely relish the reception of this type of event in the journals that Official Ireland are so desperate to impress.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

I am not Irish, and accordingly didn’t have any “skin in the game” in this. However, while I would concede that the current wording of the Constitution is a bit sexist, rectifying that doesn’t seem all that pressing.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

And it cost €20 million to get the wrong answer.

Peadar Laighléis
Peadar Laighléis
4 months ago

First of all, I hope some readers benefited from my suggestion on Friday that it was worth having a flutter on a no-no result.
As in other cases, there are many answers as to why this happened. It wasn’t a straight conservative vote, but there is a lot of conservativism, overt or latent, out there which the Irish government chooses to ignore. But this debate was carried out in the Oireachtas (Dáil and Seanad – parliament) with a tight guillotine and no pre-legislative scrutiny. We also know that the hapless Minister for Equality and Children, Roderic O’Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party), whose task it was to see this through, disregarded advice given by Attorney General which became apparent when this was leaked on Thursday.
It wasn’t a straight conservative vote. The small party Aontú is a left wing party which is socially conservative. Independent Ireland represents people in rural Ireland but it barely registers. The most articulate voice in the Oireachtas was Senator Michael McDowell, who is an independent representing the National University of Ireland. He served as leader of the now defunct Progressive Democrats, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), Minister for Justice and before that Attorney General (he is a senior counsel – KC if you will). McDowell eviscerated both proposals and assembled a “Lawyers for No” group which attacked the proposals from varying legal perspectives. Also in the Senate, the retired army captain Tom Clonan (University of Dublin, independent) tackled the proposals from a carers’ perspective (Captain Clonan’s son is severely disabled). McDowell has generally been an economic conservative and a social liberal in his policies; I would see Clonan as being on the liberal left.
Among the yes side, this was seen as a Green Party hobby horse. There is no doubt that many in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were either skeptical or believed it best to let sleeping dogs lie. The Social Protection Minister, Heather Humphries (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael) who was Fine Gael’s director of elections was invisible, but as a staunch Presbyterian from the border area, she was hardly enthusiastic about the proposal and was out of sight for most of the campaign. Similarly, a number of Fianna Fáil representatives wilted in debates as they appeared to lack conviction. In regard to Sinn Féin, falling in the polls currently, there was political failure on the part of Mary Lou McDonald who should have smelt blood on this. It was possible to make a case that the government proposals were inadequate, but she botched this and watched a ballot box in one of her core support areas in working class Dublin turning out a 95%-5% vote against. This defines “out of touch” as many SF voters are realising that SF means more of the same. Ms McDonald is blaming the government now where she reckoned that she could piggy back on their success. However, her promise to re-run this has been forgotten. I don’t believe she saw a no victory as being much more that 52-53%.
I do see people are saying that Leo Varadkar’s position is not under threat. In spite of his cumulative lack lustre performance, it isn’t. But it appears that this is because no one wants it. We’re in the home run to the local and European elections in Ireland (June) and it remains to be seen who draws lessons from this.

Lone Wulf
Lone Wulf
4 months ago

In a referendum no means no. Those who pretend otherwise are manipulators.