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.
From members of both government parties, I found something depressing about the stances they adopted on the Wildlife Bill. On the part of the Greens, given all they have agreed to since going into government, was this so much more important than taking a stance against NAMA or the continued aid to Anglo-Irish, or other such issues, to take the example of cystic fibrosis mentioned by Prof. Brian Lucey in a letter to Saturday’s Times? Equally, on the part of backbench Fianna Fáil TDs, what made protecting this hunt so much more of a cause to speak up and question government policy than many other issues, as Vincent Browne argued yesterday in the same paper. It is because of their priorities on issues like this that I would feel that the Greens are not the ideal coalition partner during an economic, fiscal and banking crisis.
But because of a bill will pass its final vote in the Dáil later today, despite all that, at the next general election, I will cast my fourth preference, after the likely three Fine Gael candidates, for the Green Party, such as it will remain in Wicklow. After reading David Quinn in the Independent on Friday and Breda O’Brien in the Times on Saturday, I warmed more to the Greens. There are many other issues which I would disagree with them on, such as on GM food, touched on by Quinn. But on certain cultural issues, I stand where they do. What sort of mentality is to describe John Gormley’s of the Roman Catholic Church’s contribution to the debate on civil partnership as “kicking an institution when it is down”, as O’Brien does? Badly phrased on Gormley’s part, a church has as much right as I do to comment in the public sphere, but while the institution still exercises the influence on curriculum in more than 90% of primary schools, and while those in the hierarchy who knew of crimes committed by priests against children still hold positions of influence, that institution is not down.
The Green Party have secured the Civil Partnership Bill, which should become law later this year. It is by no means a perfect bill; not only does it seem a little backward to introduce only civil partnership when to date seven other European countries have allowed gay couples to marry, but it has considerably fewer guarantees and protections than the Civil Partnership Act which the United Kingdom introduced in 2005. I am not convinced that this is the best we could have got constitutionally, but I could believe that it might be the best that could have been achieved politically. Without the Green Party in this government, even these protections in this bill would not have been introduced this year, and I will give that credit where it is due.
I had a letter published in today’s Irish Times, in response to Breda O’Brien’s article on Saturday, “Genuinely tolerant society will not be a cold house for religion”.
A chara, – Breda O’Brien writes that “how we handle gay rights versus religious rights will determine whether we become a polarised society that is a cold house for religion, or a genuinely tolerant society”.
Implicit in this comparison is a faulty assumption these rights fall under equivalent categories. Ms O’Brien might plausibly contrast religious views of society against secular views, both being deeply held outlooks.
However, the same cannot be said of gay rights, which are a recognition of an innate characteristic. In classical liberal terms, the rights afforded to religion are derived from freedom of speech and association, and in a pluralist society we should naturally be respectful of differences in such matters, whereas the rights recognised for gay people are a matter of equality before the law, which surely ranks higher in any estimation of rights. – Is mise,
Bray, Co Wicklow.
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. …
The Dáil is today beginning debate on the Civil Partnership Bill, which would allow gay couples to register their partnerships. This is, I suppose, better than nothing, but it is not good enough. There would have been a time when this would have been acceptable, but not now in 2009, where mindsets and appreciation of the issues have changed.
Many years ago, as I recounted in a debate recently, gay people weren’t calling for marriage. They had found themselves cast off and rejected from society, and felt no choice but to create their own community. With the outbreak of the AIDS virus, people in general could no longer ignore the fact that many of their family, friends and colleagues were gay, and gay people themselves felt a desire to be integrated and accepted in the community as much as anyone else. This is a stylised version of events, but it was particularly in the last twenty years that the campaign for true equality took off.
True equality demands the right of gay couples to marry. If the state is to acknowledge the relationships of couples, it should not discriminate on the basis of the sex of the two partners. By acknowledging that gay couples merit recognition, but only in the form of civil partnership, the state is stating that they believe the love between a man and a woman is superior to that between two men or two women.
So what do we hear from those who oppose marriage equality? They claim that civil partnership grants all the rights of marriage, so what more would we want. Even if it did, the discrimination would exist in the refusal to grant the word, and particularly because of the constitutional recognition of marriage. What’s more, the Bill grants no recognition to the children of gay couples. There are cases now, more pertinent in the case of lesbian couples, where a child from a previous relationship is being raised by a couple. If the natural mother were to die, the surviving mother would have no legal rights to the child.
There has been the claim particularly promoted in recent years that marriage is not about couples at all, it is about children. Children are a natural part of the relationship between a man and a woman, but people generally don’t marry for children. I don’t mean in the case of unmarried mothers, where the father is still very much part of the family. In such cases, I believe marriage should be promoted, or at least not disincentivized, by the state. I mean that in cases where there are no children, a couple who do get married do so primarily for love, while they might look forward to raising children. This is obviously the case for those who for medical reasons can’t have children of their own, or particularly elderly couples. Even those who see marriage’s primary function to provide for children, acknowledge these exceptions, so why cannot they simply extend that privilege to gay couples? Those considering the welfare of children should also give a moment’s thought to the many gay children, for whom the normalization of gay relationships would lessen their adolescent anxiety, that they could have the same hopes for married family life as others, and reduce the likelihood of their being bullied in school.
Over time, new rights are discovered to exist as natural rights. Nothing in law and society is set in stone, and our views of social norms change slowly in line with evidence over time. The fact that Éamon de Valera had only the marriage between a man and a woman in mind when he wrote Article 41 of the Constitution of Ireland is not how law should be judged. A nice example of how law changed from what those who drafted it had in mind is how the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 by 9-0 to desegregate schools on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, ending the farce of separate but equal, despite the fact that those who drafted that Amendment in 1868 would clearly not have anticipated such a ruling. On the issue of marriage equality, the scientific understanding of homosexuality has changed over the past century, with the consensus now that it is a normal and immutable condition, however rare, rather than a psychiatric condition as a result of childhood experiences, as expostulated by Sigmund Freud. Now, as gay couples desire the comfort, stability, recognition and security of marriage as much as many others, there is no compelling reason it should not be granted.
If nowhere in the world was marriage between gay couples in place, it would still be no justification for not legislating for it here. But given that Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden have dropped any requirement that a married couple be of opposite sex, the Irish government should ask why the situation here is so different. Religious views should not be considered when drafting legislation in a republic, but it’s nice to be able to point to Catholic Belgium and Catholic Spain in that list. And of course, it was the most heavily Irish part of the United States, Massachusetts, that gay couples first received marriage rights.
In 2006, Anne Colley, a solicitor and former Progressive Democrat TD, delivered a report (pdf) to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell, on the best way to tackle discrimination for same-sex couples, and she found that only way to deal with question fairly would be to grant gay couple full and equal rights to marry. To Minister McDowell’s discredit, he sidelined the report, proposing only domestic partnership, which would grant no more recognition to gay couples than two siblings, and perhaps even two friends, who were living together in a financially dependent situation. It was from then, in part as a disappointed party member, that I realized how important it was that there should be full rights to marry.
Now we are presented with this bill. I believe it is only a matter of time before full marriage rights are achieved, there will only be so long this country can hold out, but I would far rather that happened today than several years from now. For my own part, I presume without thinking that I will get married, especially seeing how much it is taken for granted in the aforementioned countries and certain US states. I certainly have no desire for civil partnership. But there are many gay couples far older than me, for whom any benefit or recognition would be a great peace of mind. For this reason, I hope the Bill passes, in as strong a form as possible. But equally, I am glad to see the many gay activists protesting against the deficiencies of the bill. And from its enactment, it will hopefully be only a matter of time before it is clear that there is really no natural difference in fact between the love of any two people, and that the discrimination lessened but emphasized in this Bill will end.