FERGUS FINLAY: We can’t let fear get in the way of backing same-sex marriage

IN THE course of the children’s rights referendum campaign — on October 31st, 2012, to be exact — I took part in a debate with John Waters and Kathy Sinnott.

I was there, as I saw it, to support Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Children.

It was on TV3, chaired by Vincent Browne, and was recorded an hour or so before transmission. The debate was an ugly and heated affair, characterised by a lot of shouting and interruption. I remember thinking afterwards that, with the exception of Frances Fitzgerald, who maintained dignity and focus on the main issues throughout, none of us had really covered ourselves in glory. Someone tweeted in the course of the debate that (to say the least!) it wasn’t particularly helpful in making the issues totally clear.

A few minutes before the debate ended, John Waters suddenly turned on me, and launched into a tirade about my motives, and those of the organisation I work for, in being involved in the campaign at all. Browne eventually interrupted him, and told him that he had directly impugned the integrity of a decent and respectable organisation, and that I had to have a right of reply.

Taken aback by the ferocity of Waters’ verbal assault, I stumbled through a couple of sentences, and the programme came to an end. When the cameras had stopped, Browne remonstrated with Waters. “You simply can’t say that sort of thing, John,” he said. Waters grinned, and replied that it was just the give and take of a robust debate!

I went over to him, and told him he was a disgrace (I may not have been quite as polite as that). A few minutes later, I noticed Browne in huddled conversation with his producer. They told me that they were considering editing the last few minutes of the programme, because there had been a pretty clear defamation. I said I believed it was important the debate be broadcast in its entirety, and gave them both an assurance that Barnardos would take no action on foot of the broadcast.

In the end — actually, immediately — they decided to cut the programme short by what they said was two and half minutes, because Waters had been so (allegedly) defamatory that anyone who worked for Barnardos could consider taking an action.

So you can imagine my surprise when the same John Waters, who believes in robust debate, took €40,000 — which is made up of licence fee income and taxpayers’ support — from RTÉ for an interview in which some of his views were described as homophobic. Since it happened, there have been endless articles written about the meaning of the word homophobic. Most of them are what you might call “dancing on the head of a pin” type arguments about the precise meaning of the word — the sort, I suppose that would be thrashed out in court if RTÉ had decided to contest his claim for damages.

I’m not going to accuse John Waters of homophobia, because I don’t know him well enough to characterise him that way. But he’s certainly confused.

For example, I’ve just finished reading the unedited transcript of an interview he gave to the UCD newspaper College Tribune in August 2012. The interview (it’s available in full on broadsheet.ie) is headed “It’s Not Even Gay Marriage I’m Opposed To: It’s The Idea Of Gay Adoption”.

So, he’s not opposed to gay marriage. Mind you, in the course of the interview he describes it as a satire on marriage. “It is not that they want to get married,” he says, “it is that they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they are envious of it and they see it as a, really, as an affront to their equality”. And he goes on to say that “the idea of two men in shiny suits, there, standing on the church steps that’s satire of our civilisation, that’s what it is. And that’s what it’s intended to be.”

Thank goodness there’s nothing homophobic about any of that. Then there’s all sorts of mad conspiracy theories about an alliance between Catholic clergy in Ireland and the liberal left because they hate the Pope (Benedict was still in office then). So these dangerous lefties, inside the Church and out, are going to force gay marriage onto the altar, “as a way of getting back at the Vatican”. He has no doubt whatever about that.

I have to say that what bothered me most about the interview though was his views on adoption and gay people. This matters because we’re going to have a referendum, sooner or later, to allow gay marriage, and there is no doubt that this is one of the issues that will be used to generate fear and confusion.

Waters is entirely clear. Adoption used to be for children who had been deprived of their natural parents through death and was supposed to give those children the chance of a normal life. “Now,” he says, “we have inverted this into the idea that the child has become the product, the commodity, that is supplied to different, differently defined alternative families.”

Where does that come from? When did we change our adoption laws? Who has proposed that we should? The legislation establishing the Adoption Authority, and the mission of the authority itself, makes one thing absolutely clear. Adoption must be conducted with the best interests of children as the primary consideration. Adoption is, and will remain, a service for children, not for adults. That applies equally to heterosexual and to homosexual adults.

PARENTS being considered for assessment — and everyone who has ever been involved knows that it’s a long and difficult, sometimes painful process — must pass the test that the adoption will be in the child’s best interests.

That applies equally to domestic adoptions and to inter-country adoptions. Inter-country adoptions are regulated by the Hague Convention of 1993, which Ireland has formally ratified. The first two objects of that international convention are these: “a) to establish safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights …; and b) to establish a system of co-operation … to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children”.

What all this means is that if a gay couple are allowed to adopt a child, it will always be on the basis that there has been a rigorous and demanding assessment that has come to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of the child. That means that the decision has been made that the gay couple concerned are in the best position to provide the love, security and stability that the child needs.

When we are asked to make a decision about gay marriage, we need to vote on the basis of rational argument. We need to acknowledge individual human rights, and face the reality of discrimination and oppression of gay people. I’ll be voting yes, and arguing for a yes. Above all, I’ll be hoping that we don’t allow fear, misinformation, and prejudice to get in the way of the right decision.

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