Labour’s proposed referendum on marriage
Included in the Labour Party manifesto is a commitment to a referendum to allow same-sex marriage (or to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, as I would rather phrase it). I welcome support from any party for such a change and I would put what time and resources I could into campaigning for a Yes vote in the case of such a referendum. But I think it is possibly counter-productive of Labour to presume that the best way of achieving this is to a commitment to a referendum.
Yes, the High Court ruled against Katharine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, a couple who were married in Canada and who have been seeking since 2006 to have their marriage recognized here. But as the Supreme Court has yet to judge on this, we don’t have a definitive ruling that it would be unconstitutional to allow this. Representing the couple were Gerard Hogan, a Progressive Democrat, and Ivana Bacik of Labour (some parallel perhaps to the political divergence between Olson and Boies in California, who had represented Bush and Gore in 2000).
For Labour to call for a referendum now means that they accept that the proposal would contravene either the wording in Article 41.1.2° “The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State” or in Article 41.3.1° “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack”. Labour are proposing what would probably be an unseemly amendment with an explicit exception. What would be better would be to try convince people that rather being an attack on the institution, allowing gay couples to marry would strengthen Marriage, by promoting it as the end of stable relationships for all, and for the protection of those children being raised by gay parents.
I believe that whatever initial concerns there may be would die down quite soon after the introduction of marriage equality, by whatever means it eventually happens, and that people will wonder what all the fuss was about. Its introduction in other European countries has had no particular effect on marriage in general.
But we could do without a referendum. I don’t want to have to justify my wish to have the choice to get married to the electorate at large. I would far rather it acknowledged as something that naturally belongs within the broad constitutional framework of equality before the law, than as something in the gift of the electorate. If it can happen without a referendum, that would be better, and worth waiting a short few years. I’m not going to pretend that there is a case on gay rights to vote Fine Gael; it’s just that I prefer the approach taken by MarriagEquality and others on this politically in pressing the case from a legislative and judicial perspective. Now that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in Britain look like they could soon introduce the change, the Irish political process will eventually find itself unphased and go ahead and make the change. Not without plenty of pressure though.