Paul Hosford: Ireland doesn’t need or want toxic culture war ‘debate’ on trans people

On the eve of Dublin’s Pride, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was unequivocal: Trans rights, as the saying goes, are human rights
Paul Hosford: Ireland doesn’t need or want toxic culture war ‘debate’ on trans people

“It’s very superficial, I sense at times, and it’s sort of plucking one aspect of it or one manifestation of it and turning it into a big sort of toxic discussion, which I have no time for and we don’t need that.”

On the eve of Dublin’s Pride, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was unequivocal: Trans rights, as the saying goes, are human rights.

Martin was speaking after a couple of weeks in which the so-called trans debate reached a kind of fever pitch.

(There is no ‘trans debate’, by the way; transgender people exist, and framing discussion about different aspects of their lived experience under the net of ‘debate’ often implies otherwise.)

But what Martin was really getting at was not that the discussion (it is important at this juncture to be clear I am not arguing against anyone’s right to speak freely) but was hitting on a key issue of the discourse: Namely that this is largely an imported battle in the culture wars, designed to do little but sow division.

In the UK, the discussion around trans rights and treatment has become incredibly toxic. It has taken on many of the characteristics of a moral panic, about which many faceless Twitter profiles care suspiciously deeply.

The question which Irish politicians have asked in the last week is salient: Is this the kind of debate we want to import? And, as importantly, to what end?

To the first question, Martin was clear. “I’d be very concerned about that and I’ve watched it in the UK and we certainly don’t need that kind of debate in Ireland. We don’t need to have that kind of debate in Ireland,” he said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: 'Acceptance is the key for trans persons.' Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Micheál Martin: 'Acceptance is the key for trans persons.' Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

“First of all, acceptance is the key for trans persons and I think we need a debate that creates a space for understanding and from an informed perspective, and sometimes we don’t get that in a highly charged forum.”

As was the Green Party whip Marc Ó Cathasaigh in the Dáil on Thursday: “We’re beginning to see an importation of culture wars that are being waged elsewhere where debates around these issues are becoming weaponised and are being used to stoke fears and to sow division.

“The debate around trans rights has become increasingly heated in Ireland over the past number of weeks,” he said.

“It is a debate around somebody’s basic right to exist. We always have to be conscious of that.”

Fuelling a narrative

The importation of these debates exists purely to fuel a narrative that we, as a society, are being driven apart by our differences on social issues, that our day-to-day lives are riven with violence and upheaval because minorities are demanding more than their fair share and it is tearing apart our very social fabric.

Look around you. Is that an Ireland you recognise? Because it certainly is not the country I live in. The Ireland I know can have grown-up conversations about issues (not people’s ‘right’ to exist), while putting the dignity of those about whom we are conversing front and centre.

Neither is that a representation of the minority communities in Ireland that I recognise, the vast majority of whom just want to get on with their lives in a country which recognises their basic rights and dignity.

The second question is more complicated. To what end do people want to have this “debate”?

There are some who say they worry about “the invasion of female spaces” by trans women, but under the Gender Recognition Act of 2015, according to the most recent review, there have been 599 gender recognition certificates issued to both trans men and women up to the end of 2020, about 10 a month. While this is not empirical data on the number of trans people in Ireland, it points to their being a very tiny minority.

There are those who argue that changes to the 2015 Act would allow 16- and 17-year-olds change their gender identity without parental consent. This is, quite simply, untrue.

The programme For government commits to: “Removing the need for a person aged 16 and 17 years to have two specialist reports before they can apply for legal gender recognition, by providing for self-declaration, with parental consent and by making mediation available on a voluntary basis.”

This is being done on foot of a 2018 review of the legislation, which consulted with young trans people who felt that the need to consult with doctors was “forcing young people down a medical route when all that may be required is social transition and legal recognition”.

There was an argument that the National Women’s Council of Ireland wants to exclude the word ‘woman’ from maternity hospital guidelines, which is also false.

“NWCI advocates for inclusive language in legislation and policy. NWCI recommended the use of ‘women and people’ in the amendments to the maternity legislation,” the group stated.

Given that intersex people, non-binary people, and trans men can become pregnant, this doesn’t feel like an egregious request and one which is very unlikely to impact the day-to-day lives of anyone.

Attempt to relitigate 2015 Act

There is now also an attempt to relitigate the 2015 Act under the guise that it was, somehow, snuck through. To be clear, the Act began its life with a 2010 formation of the Gender Recognition Advisory Group, which came back a year later with a report.

This was followed by two opposition bills being debated in 2013 when Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh introduced his bill in the Dáil and senator Katherine Zappone brought hers to the Seanad, before the Government’s bill was brought in July that year.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Sinn Féin introduced his bill in the Dáil in 2013. File picture: Andy Gibson
Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Sinn Féin introduced his bill in the Dáil in 2013. File picture: Andy Gibson

A comprehensive report was debated in 2014 before the bill was published that December.

In January 2015, the bill was introduced in the Seanad and debated for two days before a Dáil debate in which 26 TDs spoke.

By the time the bill passed in July that year, the Trans Equality Network Ireland estimated that 240 articles were published about the bill.

But even if the bill was snuck through, its quiet operation for seven years should say something, surely?

In some sections of society, the issue of transitioning, trans healthcare, and trans treatment will raise questions which are more complex, but the answer to that complexity is never to import a toxic discourse.

The Taoiseach is right — that’s something we have no time for.

Did you know?

In 1957, John “Jack” Murphy became the first unemployed person ever elected to a national legislature.

Known in some quarters as “the man in the black beret”, he won a seat in the Dublin South Central constituency but resigned a year later, frustrated at the lack of support for unemployed people.

 “I was fed up with the callous indifference of the big parties to the situation of the workers. I resigned as a protest against appalling indifference of those parties to the unemployed,” he said.

He left Ireland for Canada but returned in 1964. He passed away in 1984.

This week in years gone by

1921

July 1: It is reported that Arthur Griffith and Eoin MacNeill have been released from Mountjoy prison to much excitement amid increased hope of a peace deal with Britain. According to Sinn Féin leaders, there was “complete unanimity” to achieve a settlement.

2001

July 2: Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan challenged taoiseach Bertie Ahern to call on election anytime. Following his party's decisive win in the Tipperary South by-election, the nine-percentage-point rise in the Fine Gael vote gave Noonan his first electoral endorsement as leader and a good springboard for starting his general election campaign.

“There is going to be a real contest now between Bertie Ahern and Michael Noonan. We have been planning a general election for some time now, and we are ready at any time,” Noonan said.

Fine Gael was roundly defeated at the general election nine months later, winning just 30 seats. Noonan resigned immediately after.

2011

July 1: The Irish Examiner reported that with more than 4.5m citizens, the population of Ireland was moving towards post-Famine levels and was the fastest-growing in Europe, according to the Central Statistics Office. Preliminary results of Census 2011 published showed the population of Co Cork exceeded 500,000 for the first time since the Famine, while 1.27m people live in Dublin.

2016

June 30: In the days after the Brexit referendum, the turmoil from that decision continued to play out on the front pages. The front page of the Irish Examiner on July 1, 2016 quoted Fianna Fáil's Dara Calleary, a former junior finance minister, as saying Europe “walked away from Ireland” during the financial crash and enforced the bailout upon us.

2020

June 27: Micheál Martin becomes Taoiseach as a historic coalition of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party comes to power at the Convention Centre in Dublin.

What to look out for this week

Tuesday

  • The Dáil week will kick off at 2pm with Leaders' Questions, with the cost of living due to remain an issue. Sinn Féin will look to hammer that home as they have a motion calling for an emergency budget in the Dáil at 7.30pm.
  • In the Seanad, a busy day will see three pieces of legislation debated, starting with the Institutional Burials Bill which will be discussed from 2.45pm. The Government business will also see the Planning and Development and Higher Education Authority Bills discussed.
  • The Linn Dara CAMHs unit, which saw 11 beds closed last month due to staffing issues, will be discussed at the sub-committee on mental health. Sectoral emissions targets for transport and agriculture will be the subject of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action. The Joint Committee on Tourism, Sports, Art, Culture, and Media will launch its report on the abuse of referees in sport.

Wednesday

  • On Wednesday, the Taoiseach will join EU leaders in meeting Nato leaders in Madrid. Expect questions about Irish neutrality to be high on the agenda when Martin appears before the Irish media.
  • At home, Labour will bring its Autism Bill to the chamber at 10am before Leaders' Questions at midday. With three weeks left of the Dáil term, the Government will look to get through seven pieces of business. There are bills on EirGrid, regulation of builders, assisted decision making, and judicial appointments, as well as the renewal of the legislation underpinning the Special Criminal Court.

Thursday

  • The Education and Social Protection Ministers will take questions in the Dáil on Thursday before Leaders' Questions ahead of six hours being turned over to debate the Government's defective blocks scheme. In committees, Simon Coveney will appear in his role as defence minister  to discuss the use of Irish troops in UN missions.
  • The Seanad, meanwhile, will discuss the Circular Economy and Electoral Reform Bills.

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