GUEST COLUMNIST: Success is still some distance away for same-sex marriage referendum

YESTERDAY’S cabinet meeting committed the Government to holding a referendum on same-sex marriage.

It is 30 years since homosexuality was decriminalised. It was just three years since civil partnerships became possible for gay and lesbian people. Thousands of years in the reckoning and a single generation in the making, an astonishing story is unfolding and chapters are still to be told.

But change is not inevitable. Most of what is promised in fact never happens. In 30 years we had a bubble that burst and a Celtic Tiger sent stinking to the taxidermist. A referendum to enable divorce passed only with the slimmest of majorities and then only after a previous one was defeated. The millstone of the eight amendment to the constitution prohibiting abortion, but in the X Case judgement actually enabling it if only for the suicidal, remains in our constitution. Savita Halappanavar had the misfortune to live in a country resistant to change. Her death provoked self-satisfying outrage but no change to allow a risk to the health of a woman as a basis for the termination of a viable foetus.

Progress only happens in hindsight. The announcement of a referendum should not be confused with its passage. The assumption of inevitable progress is intellectually arrogant and politically culpable. Nothing is inevitable, especially not progress.

A successful outcome in a referendum depends on successfully framing the question. Already it is crystal clear that those opposed to gay marriage will try and make the question about children, and not about adults. Important issues about guardianship and custody as well as about adoption remain to be legislated for.

It is imperative lest the question at issue is confused, that these are settled in law and settled down in reality well in advance of polling day.

The Family Law Reform Bill to deal with guardianship and custody was promised last year. It is promised now before the end of this year. Issues at stake include extending guardianship of a child to the non-biological parent in a couple. That is important for everything from signing school notes to being able to continue parenting if the biological parent dies. In those circumstances a non-biological partner in however a long-standing and stable relationship has no status vis-à-vis the children they lovingly parented and for whom they are important care givers. Our one-size-fits-all law doesn’t yet recognise the reality that families come in many different shapes and families with same-sex parents are one family shape among many.

Pending a determination in the Supreme Court to a challenge against the outcome of the Children’s Referendum based on the alleged misuse of state resources to advocate a yes vote, no legislative progress is likely on the issue of adoption. At stake here is the capacity of a couple, gay or straight, other than a married couple to adopt. Often one partner in that couple is the biological parent of the child both want to adopt.

A successful same-sex marriage referendum would by default settle the issue by extending marriage and by implication the right to adopt to married same sex couples. It would also likely focus opposition in any referendum campaign on that single issue. It is important then that as with the successful 1996 divorce referendum that related but separate issues are dealt with first.

Same-sex marriage is about enabling gay and lesbian adults enter into a union on the same basis as heterosexuals. For most gay couples there are no children involved. For those who have children either biological or adopted their welfare is hugely important.

All of these issues deserve to be debated and decided one by one on their merits.

Debating and legislating for these issues will take months. Putting in place the administrative arrangements to underpin them several more. Allowing them work in practise and reassure sensible people who are open to being reassured that all of this is a regularisation of the normal and not a Frankenstein creation of the bizarre will take a little more. It is time that should be taken because those who want to defeat this referendum will endlessly make and repeat that charge and more.

I believe time is one of the most potent supports for a successful same-sex marriage referendum. Civil partnership was a game changer that highlighted the normality and the nearness in numerous families and communities of same-sex couples getting on with ordinary lives. It is a solid basis now for further progress.

A political charge against civil partnership was that it institutionalised inequality instead of addressing it. Pending perfection, there was a point in that argument but it provided no practical alternative to moving the agenda on substantially, which civil partnership successfully did. Looking over the sweep of the recent history of ideas it is amusing how the denunciation of marriage as a paternalistic institution constructed for diminishing women has transformed into a demand for same-sex marriage as a benchmark for equality now. Same-sex marriage is essentially a reaction to what society has become, and not a programme of revolution for how it should change. For better or worse it is a profoundly conservative cause. But conservative or not, this country could be turned into a coliseum to wage a fight against equality.

IRELAND would be the first country in the world to vote by referendum for same-sex marriage. We have a history of half-baked and unsuccessful referenda campaigns. If the Irish people show signs of embracing social change they have repeatedly demonstrated that on the issue of constitutional change they are conservative with a small ‘c’. The no campaign has only to create a reasonable doubt in the public mind for the successful outcome of this referendum to be put in question.

The issues at stake are too important nationally and internationally to allow that to happen. More than the importance of the issue and the international spotlight that will inevitably come with it are the lives of the people affected. Defeat would be a demoralising blow. It would bolster prejudice and retard an emerging but still fragile story of progress for up to a decade.

This referendum will be a hard-fought campaign. Labour has led on this issue and its commitment is real. But deciding in principle on a referendum likely does more for Eamon Gilmore now than he can deliver subsequently to get it over the line. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be focused on the next general election. Resources from either in terms of money or boots on the ground will likely be limited. The capacity of Sinn Féin to mobilise its vote in a referendum is illusionary.

A successful referendum campaign depends first on defining the question in the public mind. That question as we approach the centenary of the proclamation of this republic is whether every Irish man and woman can enjoy the right to marry the partner of their choice, regardless of gender. The answer of the Irish people to that question is, for now, unknown.

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