Independent senator Jim Walsh made the remarks yesterday during a Seanad debate on whether to lower the age someone can run for president.
The Wexford-based senator said he had been told by “a gay man over the weekend” that the marriage equality and presidential age votes —which will be held on May 22 — will cost the State €21m.
Criticising the expense involved, Mr Walsh, who is known for his strongly held conservative views, said during the apparent conversation the man said the money would be better spent on “free HIV testing” for gay people.
“I met a gay man over the weekend and we were just discussing about the referendum and he just said to me: ‘It’s going to cost €21m to run these referenda and to run the referendum on gay marriage.’ He said that money could be so much better spent, in his opinion. He said, for example, if that money were to be used to provide free HIV testing to people who are homosexual, where there’s an increase now in the numbers affected by HIV, it would be far better expenditure of money,” Mr Walsh said.
The remark led to scenes of shock in the Seanad, with independent senator Jillian van Turnhout later tweeting she almost fell off her seat.
Yes Equality campaign spokeswoman and co-director Gráinne Healy said the position was “baffling”, as no one is recommending “one over the other”.
She said the Department of Health already has a “well-funded” HIV testing service, and that all the Government is doing is allowing the public to decide on marriage equality. When asked if Mr Walsh’s comments, and a similar controversy earlier this month from the Bishop of Elphin, do a disservice to more middle-ground No voters, Ms Healy said they “muddy the waters”.
Mr Walsh has a long track record of holding conservative views on the family. He resigned the Fianna Fáil party whip last week after it became clear he would be expelled, as his views on the Child and Family Relationships Bill contradicted those of the party.
Among the 36 sections of the bill Mr Walsh opposed, were those on adoption rights and IVF treatment for same-sex couples.
During the debate on the issue, he also said encouraging gay people to believe “sameness” could be achieved would cause them “more harm than good”.