WE will be talking a lot about children and families over the next few months, because we will be asked to include a clause on marriage in our Constitution.
There isn’t one at the moment. That was a surprise to me, because I assumed that the Constitution dealt with marriage and how it’s defined. But it doesn’t. It deals with the family. What it says about the family is important, and has influenced public policy over many years.
Article 41 is the key. It describes the family as “the natural, primary and fundamental unit group of society”. Because it is so important, Article 41 says that “the State, therefore, guarantees to protect the family in its Constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the State”.
To further underline the importance of the family, Article 41 then says that the “State pledges itself to guard, with special care, the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. That phrase, “on which the family is founded”, is particularly important, because it means that married families have a more central place in constitutional law than unmarried families.
Twenty years ago, we recognised that some families break down. After a long and passionate debate, we added a new clause to our Constitution, recognising the fact of marriage breakdown. And we set out in specific detail the circumstances in which marriages could be dissolved, thus enabling people to remarry.
But now we’re being asked to (finally) add a new clause, setting out how people can get married in the first place. The clause is simple and direct. It says: “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.
If we say ‘yes’ to this, we will be saying that people can get married to each other whether they are straight or gay. That’s all. We’ll be saying that we regard gay people as equal to straight people, with the right to live their lives in the same way as everyone else.
It’s a completely non-controversial proposition. It’s been a feature of Irish law for years that people should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their sexual orientation. All this new clause asks us to do is to extend the principle of equality and non-discrimination to the institution of marriage.
That’s why every opinion poll suggests that a significant majority of people will support the proposition. But there are people adamantly opposed to it. They have decided, for whatever reason, to oppose it by arguing that this proposition is bad for children.
Their logic (in one sense) is clear. If we can be made to fear gay people, or be persuaded that they are undesirable parents, we may vote against change.
Of course, they won’t put the argument that way. Instead, they’ll tell us, as Breda O’Brien, of the Iona Institute, told us on Saturday in a newspaper, that “Article 41 recognises that every single child has a mother and father. A mother and father each provide half of a child’s identity. Marriage, among other things, provides legal frameworks to maximise the chances that a child will be raised by those two crucial people”.
Article 41 doesn’t say any of those things. (It does say that women give the State a service by their “duties” in the home.) But no matter.
The opponents of change believe that if they can make the debate about the welfare of children, they can make us all sufficiently fearful that we will vote ‘no’. Fear is always a useful tactic.
Well, look. We have a million children. That’s an important figure, because it represents a quarter of the population. Across Europe, the average is much closer to a fifth.
The exact number, according to the official statistics, is 1,148,687 children (ie, under the age of 18). For every age of childhood, we have between 50,000 and 70,000 children — more at the younger ages, because our birth rate has increased in recent years. So, for example, in 2012 we celebrated the arrival of 72,000 babies, whereas in 1950 (the year my twin sister and I were born!) there were only 63,000 or so.
That number was down considerably, under 50,000 a year, in the mid-1990s, such that commentators were writing about a crisis. It never happened, and the fact that we have so many children is good and important news. Those of us getting closer to retirement age have reason to be grateful that there’s a huge gang of young people coming after us.
But here’s the thing. Every single one of those 1,148,687 children is unique. They each have a different story to tell, and while you can aggregate those stories into statistics, the figures tell you little or nothing about the lives our children lead.
Those lives are, in large measure, determined by their childhoods. In Barnardos we have a saying that “every childhood lasts a lifetime”. We say it because it’s true. The way we treat children becomes the way they treat us.
The vast majority of our children grow up in families. But there’s an incredible array of different types of family — if every child is different, that’s because every family is different. There are poor families and rich ones, happy families and unhappy ones, urban and rural families, literate and less literate. There are families where alcohol, violence, and fear are features of every day life. There are families in which poverty is counterbalanced by love.
In all of those families, children need four things if they are to grow the way we want them to: they need to be loved; they need to be safe; they need to be secure in their surroundings; and they need to have stability.
Strictly speaking, these aren’t rights. You won’t find them in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance.
By the way, you won’t find any references to mothers or fathers in the UN Convention, either — although there are 36 references to parents.
But love, security, stability and safety are the conditions that all children need if their rights are to be realised. And if we stop to think about it for a moment, marriage is no guarantee of any of these conditions.
I know children of gay parents who enjoy all these conditions in abundance — and I know children of “constitutionally married” parents who have never experienced the love and safety they need.
It’s fundamentally important to separate the two issues of marriage and children.
What we’re being asked to agree to is a simple equality measure, recognising the equality of gay people. There is nothing to be afraid of here — nothing at all. Let’s do it, and simply celebrate a step towards equality for all of us.
All this new clause asks us to do is to extend the principle of equality... to marriage.
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