MATT COOPER: Civil partnerships are a step along the road to equality in Irish society

IN RETROSPECT the introduction of civil partnerships to this country was remarkably calm and civilised.

Politicians did their jobs calmly in introducing the necessary legislation and hell did not freeze over, just as it didn’t when contraception for non-married couples was allowed finally, homosexuality was decriminalised and divorce of civil marriages was introduced.

People may differ as to whether Ireland is a better place or not for these changes — and a majority would probably say that it is. But few could disagree that these moves improved personal freedoms and choices. This has made for a more equal, less discriminatory society, at least on social rather than economic issues. Some people don’t like this, of course, not trusting the competency of individuals to make informed personal decisions and preferring that they defer instead to the instructions of some authority, usually religious.

But we do not remain fully equal, even after all of these changes. Civil partnerships are not exactly the same as marriage and deliberately are somewhat lesser. The State’s politicians decided not to push to allow consenting adults of the same sex the right to the same legal status as given to hetrosexual adults who wish to marry. It was deemed dangerous politically to make the logical next step. The Catholic Church may be deeply discredited in Ireland at present but its position on gay marriage — implicitly homophobic as it is in not just wishing to deny it, but claiming that its introduction would somehow diminish the standing of existing marriages — is one that is likely to strike a chord with many Catholics who otherwise do not subscribe to many of the church’s other teachings. Again, latent homophobia may be to blame.

The Catholic Church is entitled to whatever type of marriage ceremony it wants for its members. It is well within its rights to deny gay couples the right to a Catholic ceremony, blessing or registration, according to its beliefs and rules. But it should not be allowed to impose its position to stop the extension of separately endorsed and recognised civil relationship.

It can promote among its own members its position that marriage is for a man and a woman (although the emphasis that is given to the procreation of children in this definition seems somewhat insulting to those married Catholics who are without children and who surely do not enjoy less of a committed marriage because of that). But when it comes to the State, surely it must grant the same rights of marriage to all its adult citizens and be blind to the sex of the participants?

A statement this week by the US President Barrack Obama has put the issue firmly back on the agenda not just in the US but internationally given his status. After coming under some pressure to clarify his position Obama finally came out in favour of same-sex civil marriage. He did so in a television interview hours after North Carolina became the 30th state in the US to explicitly outlaw same-sex marriage. Previously he had supported only legal civil unions for homosexuals and had said in 2004 that “gay marriage is not a civil right”. As he ran for president in 2008, he said that as a Christian he viewed marriage as a “sacred union” between “a man and a woman”.

It was thought that he was forced into this position for fear of alienating not the religious right, who would be mainly Republican voters anyway, but many of his black and Hispanic voters, many of whom are not liberal when it comes to marriage. However, his comments came just days after his Vice President Joe Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriages. It was reported that his advisers had concluded that his reputation for honesty was becoming damaged by walking on a political tightrope. His prior comments that his position was “evolving” had been mocked as cowardly. He was also facing the loss of millions of dollars in re-election donations from wealthy gay donors.

“I had hesitated on gay marriage, in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient … something that would give people hospital visitation rights and other elements we take for granted. And I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word marriage was something that evokes powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth,” he said in explaining his decision.

The extent of Obama’s gamble is not clear, although he has been condemned by some Christian organisations that supported him in 2008. He may be encouraged by opinion poll findings, and indeed it is unlikely that any decision was made without referring to those. Voters in one US Gallup poll ranked social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion as the least important of all the topics likely to come up on the campaign trail. Self-identified Republicans, who are not going to vote for Obama anywhere, were the most likely to say social issues were important.

Obama’s public declaration may be something of a gamble in that he does not have the powers to allow gay people the right to wed. This is controlled by the individual states and only six, and Washington DC, allow gay marriage. But it might have been more of a gamble if he had those powers. So there may be limits to how much he suffers by contrast to the position of his presumed presidential election opponent Mitt Romney who apparently favours amending the US constitution to outlaw gay marriage forever (although it seems that he was much more broadminded about his position before his gaze focused on the White House).

There are many who think Obama has not gone far enough. On Gawker.com the other evening it was claimed that the president’s announcement contained less than meets the eye, criticising him for saying that gay couples should be able to marry rather than saying they had a right to do so. He also supported the concept of allowing states to decide issues on their own, therefore allowing those remaining 44 states to state they are perfectly within their rights to arbitrarily restrict the access of certain individuals to marriage rights based solely on their sexual orientation.

Significantly, however, Obama last year ordered his justice department to halt prosecutions under the Defence of Marriage Act, which allows states to decline to recognise gay marriages that were performed in other states. He helped to overturn the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for the military introduced by Bill Clinton, and which is widely believed to have not worked, and he came out openly against the recent North Carolina vote.

WHAT many people might not be aware of is that Obama has taken a position already taken by the British Prime Minister David Cameron. His government is committed to legalising same-sex marriage by 2015 but he is facing pressure from within the Conservative party who believe he is being pushed by the Liberal Democrat coalition partners and who are just against the idea anyway. Cameron must be worried by one poll that showed his support for gay marriage is alienating former Tory voters. For every disaffected Tory supporter attracted back to the party, it loses almost three because of its stance on the issue.

And the debate in Britain could be very nasty over the next couple of years. The Catholic Church there has not been afraid to pitch in. Cardinal Keith O’Brien said recently that countries which legalise gay marriage are “shaming themselves” by going against the “natural law,” and should not consider their actions “progress”. He claimed same sex unions were the “thin end of the wedge” and would lead to the “further degeneration of society into immorality.” He said that if same sex marriage were legalised, “further aberrations would take place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality.” He also wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, in which he likened gay marriage to slavery.

“This is changing the whole notion of what marriage and what a family is. It affects children who are born, who have a right to a mother and father,” he said.

“The natural law teaching of what marriage is is quite simple. It is natural for a man and woman to be together for the procreation and education of children and for their own mutual love.”

That is the definition of a worthwhile marriage but it is not the only definition. There are many types of family and surely anything that provides stability and unity in relationships should be encouraged.

Wouldn’t it be great if we in Ireland could show the way?

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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