Most of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis meant little to me. There was nothing in Micheál Martin’s speech that made me feel that the party was on the cusp of a recovery or that they were going to offer a particularly distinctive voice. I acknowledge Martin’s apology on behalf of his party, but he could have made it stronger by referring directly to his time in cabinet. Philip O’Connor draws attention to his equivocations in this piece in The Journal. I found the whole speech, with all the time devoted to bins in Dublin, a little underwhelming. But of course I’d think that, wouldn’t I?
But I did notice that the Ard Fheis passed motions supporting marriage equality and for same-sex couples to be considered for adoption. They are to be commended for this, as is Martin for making his personal support clear on The Week in Politics last night. I noticed a lot of commentary on Facebook which was quite cynical in relation to this. But I don’t think it reflects any cynical attempt to gain votes which they weren’t interested in while they were in power, rather the very rapid social change on this matter. This is a growing norm, and as we look to what exists in other countries and in US states, very little has been offered on the other side.
I see no substantial reason that we would not see Fine Gael move in the same way. We might have a reputation because some of prominent members as being conservative and there is a Christian democratic tradition, but doesn’t necessarily mean an opposition to progress on this front. I’ve pointed on a number of occasions to the speech Charlie Flanagan made during the civil partnership debate. Others too from Fine Gael spoke during that same debate who stated explicitly or indirectly that civil partnership would only be a step towards equality, such as Dr James Reilly, Deirdre Clune and Simon Coveney, who gave a very honest speech on how he changed his own mind to support marriage. Of the 2011 intake, Seán Kyne urged Young Fine Gael members to vote for equal marriage at our summer school last July, and he as well as Simon Harris put questions recently to Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, to make provision for children of same-sex couples.
What ultimately matters is that we support this before the referendum, which I expect could be in the second half of this government’s term in office, around 2015, to give time for the Constitution Convention to deliberate on this and its other issues. There will be another Ard Fheis before then, but we should move now, and vote on this at our Ard Fheis at the end of March. We should not let time go as the only party not in support of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. We should also give ourselves the chance to include this the party’s submission to the Constitutional Convention.
As this is moving closer to being a reality, we are going to have to start thinking about the specifics of how this change should take place. I had previously followed on the logic of Zappone–Gilligan that this could be achieved legislatively by amending the Civil Registration Act 2004. This view was argued by constitutional lawyers Sen. Ivana Bacik, SC, and Gerard Hogan, now a High Court Justice. But having asked other constitutional lawyers, there is enough doubt on this that I know think it should be put to a referendum. Article 41 as a whole does envisage a heterosexual marriage, as seen in provisions (which should be amended, if not deleted) such as a recognition of the duties of mothers within the home. I have no doubt in my mind that with a good campaign, it can be won.
Considering other provisions in the Constitution prohibiting sex discrimination (Articles 9.1.3° and 16.1.1°–3°), I would propose:
Article 41 of the Constitution is hereby amended as follows:
(a) insert new subsection 2°, “Ní bheidh aon chosc ar phósadh idir bheirt toisc iad bheith fireann nó baineann.”, after section 1° of section 3 of the English text,
(b) insert new subsection 2°, “No two people may be excluded from marriage by reason of their sex.”, after section 1° of section 3 of the English text,
(b) subsections 2° and 3° of section 3 of both texts shall be numbered as subsections 3° and 4°.
It was only in November 2008, the morning after the US presidential election, that it properly and more clearly than before struck me that I was gay. Though I had engaged in low-level lobbying within the Progressive Democrats approaching the 2007 election on the lack of progress on a promised civil unions bill, it was partly on secular grounds because of my objection to the consultation between Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with Roman Catholic bishops in drafting legislation relating to gay people, and partly on the urging of my then girlfriend. And it was only after Proposition 8 in California was defeated that I paid much attention to it.
It was a few days later, on 8 November, I regretfully spoke and voted in favour of a motion to disband the Progressive Democrats, something that seemed a possibility from the results of the 2007 election on.
So in looking for a new party, I was more conscious than before of parties’ attitudes to gay rights. The release of Milk early 2009 was a reminder of the value of political activism and how being honest and open can change assumptions and perception, being the story of Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay people elected to public office, and who helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have barred gay teachers.
Yet I joined Fine Gael because it is the party closest to me on the role of the state in spending and economic governance. This did not mean that my deeply held liberal principles were set aside. I remembered what the late Dr Garret FitzGerald said, “You don’t join a political party because you agree with them. That always struck me as a rather static view. You join a party because you can change it. It’s a more dynamic view of politics.” And he did change assumptions not just within Fine Gael, but in the country as a whole, and remains a political inspiration for me.
In December 2009, I went to Leinster House on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. The first response was from Charlie Flanagan, who as Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave an outstanding speech, the best of the evening, in which he stepped beyond party policy, “while many welcome it, others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away”, and went on to remind us what secularism has done for society
It was then with a measure of hope that in July 2010, I proposed a motion at Young Fine Gael Summer School (where motions are consultative) with Trinity YFG to support allowing gay couples to marry. But this was very narrowly defeated, with a mere two votes in it. Of course I was disheartened, but I realized that I hadn’t given the time to something that to me seemed so obvious. And a rephrasing of what Milk said in the clip above formulated in my mind: a young gay centre-right political activist who all of a sudden realizes that they are gay; there are two options, move to Labour, or stay in Fine Gael and fight.
So I stayed on, was elected to the National Executive in November, and appointed Director of Policy. Many friends of mine outside the party found my involvement difficult to understand. I did feel that too often people did accentuate the negative, and assume a focus on social matters far greater than existed. The election result of last year was a time of hope and political renewal.
At the Summer School in July 2011, I proposed the same motion for Dublin South-East again at summer school, with Meadhbh. That time it got near universal support. It almost made me glad two people who would have voted for it the year before had turned up late.
Then this Saturday, on my last full day on the National Executive, a motion at Young Fine Gael Conference (where motions are binding as policy), proposed by Úna and Noel for DCU YFG, calling on the government to bring forward legislation allowing gay couples to adopt, was similarly passed with near universal support.
I am proud to have been an active part of the organization during this rapid change on this issue of personal importance to me. I was taken aback and very appreciative of the response to my comment on Facebook on this.
Indeed, the shift in public opinion here and in other countries in the last few short years has been remarkable. This has been both reflected and advanced by popular culture, and cheesy though it may seem, it was the words of this song, as performed by Chris Colfer, as Kurt in Glee, that went through my head before Summer School last year, “Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.”:
I am occasionally questioned by those outside the party why I support Fine Gael given its relative conservative position on some issues, particularly on the question of allowing gay couples to get married. It is a reasonable question but it assumes parties are monolithic and static in policy terms.
People can fail to appreciate that Fine Gael has long managed to maintain within it different points of view. While the strengths of different wings ebb and flow, the party does contain a strong diversity of opinion. In the 1960s we had the strong conservatism of Gerard Sweetman, the moderate fiscal conservatism of James Dillon and the social democracy of Declan Costello. Throughout Garret FitzGerald’s leadership, liberals and conservatives worked together, with clearly defined differences in many Dublin constituencies.
So while I strongly disagree with the views expressed by Lucinda Creighton over the weekend when she stated that she did not support gay marriage because she believed the purpose of marriage was for children, I do not feel disheartened. The party was right to state that this was her personal point of view, not something she was saying in her capacity as junior spokesperson on equality. While the party has not supported marriage equality, it hasn’t opposed it either. There has been no attempt, for example, to make any commitment as official Fine Gael policy to oppose equality in this matter. There is no agenda, as some have tried to imagine, to reverse civil partnership rights; the Fine Gael manifesto commits the party to completing the elements of the civil partnership process stalled by the dissolution of the Dáil.
I feel there are some, particularly online, who like to target Fine Gael for comments such as those by Lucinda while ignoring the opposite point of view from members of the party. I saw no reference in the criticisms in the last few days to the speech by Charlie Flanagan on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership Bill in December 2009. Speaking as Justice Spokesperson, giving the first response from the party, he talked of the advances in a liberal society, brought a human element to the debate, and expressed a wish that civil partnership would be a step towards equality. I have extracted portions of this speech here before, but crucially Flanagan expressed his view, “While many welcome [the civil partnership bill], others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away.”
This was his own personal opinion here again, just as it was Lucinda’s on the weekend, yet few jumped to equate his words with Fine Gael policy. Even within Lucinda’s own constituency, there is diversity within the party on this question. Eoghan Murphy, also standing for Fine Gael in Dublin South-East, affirmed in answer to an online query that he believes gay couples should be allowed to marry.
In 2004, Sen. Sheila Terry and Alan Shatter published a comprehensive policy on civil partnerships. Realistically, a change in the law to end the current discrimination will require the support of a broad-based party like Fine Gael. The day Charlie Flanagan made the above speech, I was in the public gallery, and heard a member of the Labour Party there sneer that whatever Flanagan might think, that wasn’t party policy. But to get real movement on an issue like this, it has got to the stage where it needs to be pressed from within.
I do not think it is good enough that gay people like myself can not aspire to get married, while I could in a fair few other European countries. I believe this change would make gay children growing up feel they would be accepted, normalize their relationships and reduce bullying. Gay couples would truly become part of each others’ families, as in-laws, integrating them into the familiar structures we all relate to. Children raised by gay couples would have greater security. And the couple would have the comfort and dignity of a happily married life. Fine Gael matches most closely my political outlook in broad terms, and it makes most sense for me then to make this case from within the party.
Last night, I went to gallery of the Dáil to listen to the opening stages of the Civil Partnership Bill. I heard speeches from Dermot Ahern, Charlie Flanagan, Brendan Howlin, Ciaran Cuffe, Paul Gogarty and Catherine Byrne. Though my own partisanship must in some way blur my judgement, of those I was most impressed with the speech of Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael Spokesman on Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
He brought the personal impact of this bill through much more than others in his speech. He spoke of the change in Irish society that this bill represents, and how it will improve the lives of many gay couples. He also highlighted the recent report by GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, on the prejudice still felt by gay and lesbian people. He claimed that the desire of gay couples to marry was an indication of the strength of the institution. He also highlighted a particular failing of the Bill in not making provision for the children of gay couples. His speech showed that this must be only the first step towards resolving the question of equality for gay couples and their families. I was proud to be a member of the party as I listened to his speech, key pieces of which I’ve extracted below.
On behalf of the Fine Gael party, I am proud to welcome this Bill this evening. … In the Ireland of the past, homosexuality was not tolerated to such an extent that it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual activity. … It is to the credit of Members of the Oireachtas, particularly Senator David Norris and others, that they played a key role in having that law removed from the Statute Book. The Ireland of the past was undoubtedly an extraordinarily difficult place for gay and lesbian citizens. There was virtually no understanding of difference. The way the churches treated homosexuality as a “sin” and a “choice” must have led to painful turmoil for gay people in this country. Thankfully, we have made great strides as a nation and we now live in a more tolerant era, characterised more by reason and science than by bigotry, superstition and fear. This Bill will help us move to a place where tolerance, diversity and inclusivity are more than mere buzz-words, but are characteristics that define our corpus of family law. …
The Fine Gael Party has long had a proud tradition of promoting social justice. My party’s seminal equality and social justice policy, The Just Society, which was launched in the 1960s, has guided our social policies in the years since then. I am proud that it was a Fine Gael-led Government that in the 1980s introduced significant legislation to improve the legal position of women as well as introducing remedies for abuses such as domestic violence. It was a Fine Gael-led Government that introduced divorce. In doing so, we were not seeking to undermine marriage but to give a legal remedy to those whose marriages had broken down and who were left stranded in a legal limbo. …