Referendum puts Ireland in the vanguard of global change

Marriage equality will perform a function of socially anchoring those who although previously criminalised, must now be anchored effectively within society, writes Gerard Howlin

Referendum puts Ireland in the vanguard of global change

NEXT Friday’s decision to accept or reject a constitutional amendment on marriage equality to the Constitution is essentially about power, not morality. Ostensibly there will be no radical departure if we do, as I hope, vote yes. The existing institution of marriage will continue unaffected, and the numbers of same sex couples marrying will be relatively small. Amending the constitution as proposed will, in any event, only allow the substance of what has been provided legislatively in several other European countries and in some American states. What is significant then, is not the provision of same sex marriage itself, but the process by which it is arrived at. In constitutionally crystallising here, what is an already accruing change abroad, Ireland would become a benchmark for wider change.

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: Answering key questions .

Constrained by the Irish constitution from simply legislating, a constitutional amendment voted on by the people in a plebiscite is at stake. This puts Ireland in the vanguard of global change. The change sought is incidentally about the lives of relatively small numbers of people who are gay. More profoundly it represents a highly significant development in the scope of our modern state. Radical in cultural terms, though the development towards marriage equality across the western world undoubtedly is, it is radical conservatism, not liberalism. This fact equally discomfits its ideological proponents and opponents, and for that reason is avoided by both. That the anti-patriarchal liberation movements of gays and women are apparently reaching a new crescendo in demanding access to equal marriage, an institution that subjugated both, is irony indeed.

In the radical conservative tradition, which gay and women’s liberation movements mostly affect to abhor, this is primarily about opportunity as distinct from equality.

Once upon a time the sale of council houses secured a near permanent conservative majority for a generation. Marriage equality will similarly perform a function of socially anchoring those who although previously criminalised, must now be anchored effectively within society.

That much of middle Ireland has gathered around this proposal now is evidence of a new paradigm of vested interest working within families and the communities they influence. It no longer makes sense, and is contrary to society’s vested interest to ostentatiously shut out those it is no longer prepared to allow the criminal law put away. In living memory some of those same families protected their interests as they saw them, in a widespread social use of psychiatric hospitals, Mother and Baby homes and Magdalen Laundries. Having abandoned involuntary exile, criminal condemnation or lunatic asylums, marriage self-selects as the best obvious remedy. Marriage now as ever, is as much a self-serving strategy for the majority, as it is any liberation for the minority who would be newly included. Different times evoke different responses.

The realignment of interest with change is constant. On marriage, this is especially so. The legal construct of what we now consider Christian marriage, is far closer to being 1,000 years old, not two. As has been repeatedly pointed out, in all its iterations, marriage in the West was invariably between man and women.

This of course is the nub of the cultural change we are considering. What has been repeatedly contested, however, is how and by whom marriage is controlled. The great assertion of church control occurred under Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Self-awareness of innovation was underscored in the opening lines of that Council’s ruling on marriage: “It should not be judged reprehensible if human decrees are sometimes changed according to changing circumstances”.

Marriage between close cousins was prohibited, and critically pending marriages had to be announced publically to be valid. Marriage could no longer be a private matter between families. Adjudicating the validity of marriage, and consequent legitimacy of offspring, was the prerogative of the Church. In a context of contested political authority in the medieval world, this was a highly successful power play.

The ultimate rationale of Innocent’s position was not in fact realised until centuries later when the Council of Trent insisted on marriages taking place in parish churches. It is that legacy of parish church as registry office, the nexus of Church and State here, which remains in Ireland long after it was abandoned elsewhere. Before Trent, however, Henry VIII broke with Rome not on any theological issue but on the fundamental fact of power and who had it. Requiring a male heir to sustain dynastic legitimacy, he needed a new wife. For political reasons the Pope would not agree and the King legislated the pope’s power unto himself. There was precedent, but on the specific issue of marriage Henry decisively went further.

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: Answering key questions .

In a sense 300 years after the Fourth Lateran Council, Henry reasserted civil jurisdiction over marriage. That too has its own postscript in the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753 which as an antidote to illicit elopement and as an instrument for parental control it imitated the Council of Trent and regulated for marriage in Church. The consent of the parties in private, was no longer sufficient.

In a long history of contention about who arbitrates what a valid marriage is, our referendum on Friday not only has worldwide significance, it is of historical importance as well. If passed, the Irish state will assert radically a control over its social institutions it has never done heretofore. It will do so on an issue, and in a manner that will have ramifications far beyond whatever arrangements we make for ourselves.

An untruth frequently repeated about the Irish State after its establishment is it institutionalised the role of the Catholic Church. It certainly continued it. In fact the popular institutionalisation of the Church as social arbiter predated the State by at least a generation.

Traumatised by famine and defining success as respectability, small farmers and shop keepers aligned their interests with marriage, legitimacy, and implicitly inheritance rights, as validated for them by sacramental authority. That social settlement was politically affirmed decisively in a series of by-elections during the Parnell split. The sanctity of Mrs O’Shea’s marriage was the rock Charles Stewart Parnell perished upon.

In the hundredth year since the Republic was proclaimed, in place of the cause he gave all for, we are now within sight of a new settlement. No state may provide for happiness let alone love. Ours may, however, arbitrate the institution of civil marriage.

In a profound sense Ireland reconsiders on Friday the social settlement, which foreshadowed the foundation of the State, when arrived at politically in 1891.

Then, afraid of losing the little we had, vested interest was defined in opposition to those we excluded. On Friday can realign ourselves with those we have already chosen to include.

READ MORE: Marriage Equality Referendum: Answering key questions .

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