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Campaigning for marriage equality

With Leo on the night of the count.

In Jury’s Ballsbridge on the night of the count.

Saturday 23 May 2015 was definitely one of the best days of my life.

In the few days before, I had been becoming more optimistic about the result. But even still, the night before the poll, I barely slept, which wasn’t ideal, as I had the last of my summer exams on the afternoon of polling day! I voted as polls opened at 7, as I so often do. But it was great to go down there with my sister Ursula, then catch the 7.04 train from Bray. I tuned into what was happening on Facebook and Twitter, and was bowled over with the emotion by the enthusiasm for the occasion, how many were flying and sailing #hometovote. But I had to maintain focus on that exam!

At 5, as the class moved down to the King’s Inn, and the conversation stayed on the exam, I had only the referendum and its place in wider social change in Ireland on my mind, so went with a few of them down to the Bernard Shaw, which was in a more political mood.

Meeting the Dublin Bay South canvassers in Slattery’s that night, as polls were closing, I ventured to hope to one that we could have reached 58%. Yet the following morning, about an hour before boxes were to open, I noted that anything over 53.7% would put us above Washington, which approved of marriage equality by popular vote in 2012. But from early in the day as we tallied the votes, it was clear it’d be more comfortable than that. The first box I tallied was from Curtlestown, just outside Bray, with 212 Yes to 75 No. A few minute or two later, I saw a tweet from Tiernan Brady that Bundoran had a result of 60%, and it was clear this was an extensive win. I was pleased to find out later in the morning that my own box in Bray got a high Yes vote of 301 to 105.

Every vote was important. Though many of us went through periods during the campaign where we imagined that it was going badly, that we might lose, and that a win no matter how small was a win nonetheless, it was important that we got a clear result, across the whole country. This wasn’t an urban Yes and a rural No, as we’ve seen in previous referendums. I haven’t seen the tallies from Ballinasloe or Ballincollig, but they’re likely to have seen a Yes vote, like most other towns across the country, despite the predictions a few months ago of Sen. Rónán Mullen.

It was wonderful to be in Dublin Castle for the result, to see how much joy there was among the crowds who had gathered there and on the streets outside. Then to meet other canvassers in Jury’s hotel in Ballsbridge. It was especially nice to be there with two friends I had been with the Hist committee ten years earlier. Ten years ago I had been sidelining what feelings I had of being gay because I didn’t think it practical to pay heed them. Perhaps it was fear of attention, that I thought it would be easier to get by if I acted as if I were straight. Talking to one of those two friends that night, I wondered, “If only I had known then that we would be here today”. After thinking on what I said, her response was perfect: “If we’d known then, then today wouldn’t feel so amazing”.

That explains so much of the joy that we saw throughout the country that day. It wasn’t just that we were pleased with the result in itself, and relief that the work of the campaign had gone the right way, but how far we’ve come.

This great success wouldn’t have happened without those who worked at each stage of the way. Some campaigners who worked in the foundation of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in 1975, such as Sen. David Norris and former president Mary McAleese, who played a key role in this campaign. Norris’s cases, represented by former president Mary Robinson, with the High Court and Supreme Court finding against him, before his victory in the European Court of Human Rights. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), were prominent in the work leading up to decriminalisation in 1993 and civil partnership in 2010, as they were in this campaign. There was Marriage Equality, with its single-issue focus on this campaign, and the very important work from Michael Barron and others in Belong To, with their focus on the needs and concerns of young lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in Ireland. Each year at Pride, we see the wide range of organisations working to achieve and promote equality, and all of these deserve credit for the change in the culture that contributed to the high result.

One of the great things of these recent years for me was to get to know these people well, to work with them. I’ve made many great friends over these years. My own avenue to the campaign was through politics. Contrary to what Una Mullally wrote during the week, I do see a strong role for parties as a source of political change. Not everyone can find a party that suits them, and for others, the focus of a particular campaign or organisation serves their aim better. But the energy we saw in the campaign should hopefully find its way into the political process, especially as we look ahead towards the coming general election. For the campaign to be successful in the way it was, it needed both the approval of the political process, in the establishment of the constitutional convention which proposed it, and in the passage of the amendment bill through the Oireachtas, and also the experience in canvassing. Our campaign in Wicklow was led by Ian McGahon, who had been a local election candidate for Labour, and as well as myself from Fine Gael, we also had James Doyle, who stood last year for Fianna Fáil. This combined experience mattered, even as the vast majority of those who canvassed with us had never done so before. We also benefited in different ways from the support of our local TDs Andrew Doyle, Simon Harris and Anne Ferris.

I was quite pleased with the role Fine Gael played in this campaign and the political process leading up to this. When I joined the party in 2009, I had recently begun to come out as gay, so it was very much on my mind. But at that stage, while I saw a dynamism in the party in many areas, there were a few conservative voices on this issue, most notably Lucinda Creighton, who caused us a lot of trouble before the 2011 election – though she too came out in favour in the end!

It was Charlie Flanagan’s speech as Justice Spokesperson in response to the civil partnership bill in November of that year that confirmed for me that there was a place for me in the party, that I could imagine the party speaking out strongly in favour of equality. Even after a motion I put to the 2010 YFG Summer School was narrowly defeated, I stayed on, because of that speech, in which he hoped it would be a step towards full equality. I was elected to the YFG National Exec, appointed as Director of Policy, and then proposed the motion again at Summer School in 2011, when there was barely any opposition to speak of. It was great to see the change in the organisation, with so many there wearing white ribbons on their lapels, which Maeve Howe, who was seconding the motion with me, had made to promote the motion.

Fine Gael LGBT marching in Dublin Pride 2012

Fine Gael LGBT marching in Dublin Pride 2012

At the 2012 Fine Gael Ard Fheis, another friend of mine from Trinity, Mark O’Meara had proposed a motion in favour of marriage equality. Yet the party watered it down to the focus to one on the constitutional convention. It was through the leadership of Jerry Buttimer that we saw change take hold within the parliamentary party. He was the first Fine Gael TD to come out as gay, and I was proud to join him from the start in the work of the newly established Fine Gael LGBT. We were small at first, as seen in pictures of our delegation to Dublin Pride that year, but we grew in prominence, and played an important role in bringing the conversations on the lives and relationships of LGBT people to party members. We had great assistance in establishing ourselves from our general secretary Tom Curran, who shared his own family story during the campaign.

There are many others in the parliamentary party I could mention here, though I would pay a particular tribute to Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, our vice chair on Fine Gael LGBT. We were in a good position with both ministers for justice during this period, with Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald showing a clear commitment to equality, and through their efforts at different stages, we saw the passage of the comprehensive reform of family law in the Children and Family Relationships Act. During these few years, the understanding of Enda Kenny has grown, from when he was jumping over flowerpots to avoid answering questions, to dropping into our Christmas drinks in Panti Bar, and speaking with a true insight when launching the Fine Gael campaign.

Fine Gael LGBT at Dublin Pride 2014

Fine Gael LGBT at Dublin Pride 2014

The end of the campaign brought with it a strange feeling. We had a great celebration at home on the Sunday. Then in the days after, I came across a few in work who had voted No. Some were light-hearted about it, but others were bitter. Despite the high Yes vote as evidence of Ireland as an open society, there were still many who voted No. The result will certainly make lesbian, gay, bi and trans people feel more relaxed and comfortable in our country, as we saw in reports of gay couples feeling more confident holding hands in public since the vote, but also with an awareness that homophobia still exists. On the other hand, it was to be able to just walk away from comments, not be in campaign mode, where I’d feel an obligation to counter what they said for any wavering voters there. And I should say, most in work were very positive in the days after the referendum, some of them having spotted me in the news coverage.

I also heard of gay people who knew of immediate family members who had voted No. Exhilarating as the campaign was, it wasn’t an easy one. Putting it to a vote wasn’t all positive. It was sometimes difficult to canvass, not knowing what the response would be. I’ve had negative responses before, canvassing for both the PDs and Fine Gael, but that wasn’t personal in the way this was. But though my exam schedule meant I couldn’t go out as often as I’d like, it still always felt worthwhile doing so, and was glad I did what I could.

The emotional comedown was difficult, knowing that it was over. I know I’m not alone in that, and it’s good to see a focus from the Yes Equality campaign on emotional well-being. The campaign wasn’t easy, putting so much of ourselves out there, directly or indirectly, having our lives, or the lives of friends or family, as a matter of public debate or disagreement. That’s part of what took me time to write this. The relief of knowing that this was no longer something I’d have to think about, at least as far as Ireland goes. It will be a while before it truly sinks in, whether it’s after what will be an amazing Dublin Pride, the legislation is enacted, or we see the first marriages take place. But there are already small effects of the change. It is a great feeling to know that I will not have to campaign on this again. I will watch with interest what happens in other countries, how big the majority will be on the US Supreme Court, but no longer with half an eye on the momentum it will build for change here.

Almost immediately, we heard people asking what’s next. It was great to see progress so swiftly on an improved gender recognition bill, one of the best in the world. The trans members of our community had stood with us during this campaign, like Sam Blanckensee here in Wicklow, and it’s great to see that there is something for them too to have Pride in their country this year. Whether someone identifies as male or female, or somewhere along the spectrum, should be their decision alone, a simple matter of a free choice in a free society. Given the prevalence of single-sex school, I hope the review in two years which forms part of the bill will make provision for those under 16.

There are, of course, many other social issues in need of legislative and constitutional reform. There always will be. Not all these campaigns can be compared precisely in how they will succeed to this campaign for marriage equality. The rapid change in attitudes that occurred as more people came out to their family and friends, and in the context of a global debate and legal change (unfortunately in both directions), cannot be so easily replicated. But the lesson must be to maintain focus in further campaigns on the lives and experiences of individuals, and how restrictive laws affect them. We have a great group of people in Wicklow, and we mean to find ways to continue to campaign.

It was a great campaign to be involved in, and one I’m sure I will always cherish. And that day has made possible so many great days for so many, even better than the win itself, not just this year, but forever more.

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Should a gay man support the Seanad?

25 September, 2013 Leave a comment

On the Future Matters blog, Rachel Mathews-McKay wrote in defence of the Seanad under the headline, ‘The Seanad has stood with our LGBT Community’. It is true that two of the most well known senators, Mary Robinson and David Norris, played crucial roles in advancing equality for gay people in Ireland. But should this lead us then to credit the institution of the Seanad for this progress and for it to be retained because of this legacy? Does my activism on gay rights conflict with my enthusiasm for abolition of the Seanad? Let’s examine the history in greater detail.

The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform began in 1975 with David Norris, a member of the English Department at Trinity College Dublin, as it most prominent member. Its legal advisor was Mary McAleese, who was succeeded in that role by Mary Robinson in 1979. The 1885 law which had convicted Oscar Wilde, and which had been largely repealed in England and Wales in 1967, was still in effect in Ireland.

Mary Robinson had been elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators in 1969 (continuing there till 1989), but it was through her actions as a legal counsel that she was most successful in bringing about social change, whether on this question or on many others. When David Norris sued the state on the claim that criminalisation of homosexuality was unconstitutional, Robinson acted as his barrister. In Norris v. AG, the High Court ruled against him in 1980; on appeal to the Supreme Court, they too ruled against him in 1983.

They filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ireland was a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1947, and Northern Ireland resident Jeffrey Dudgeon had successfully sued there in 1981 in Dudgeon v. United Kingdom to secure the repeal of the law, which still then applied in Northern Ireland. The law was changed for Northern Ireland in 1982 (a separate law had been passed to apply to Scotland in 1980).

In 1987, David Norris was elected as one of the three University of Dublin senators, in large part in recognition of his work in this campaign.

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A change in tone in the campaign for marriage since the Convention

23 April, 2013 2 comments

We try in political debate to maintain a level of goodwill between those who hold different but legitimate points of view. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the back and forth of debate, it is important to remind ourselves that usually all sides do mean well.

But while that might be true of contests between parties in elections, or of a referendum campaign such as on a European Union Treaty, there are opinions on some issues that must try our patience, when it is our very lives and personal relationships and the value of someone as a parent that is questioned. And from now on those in positions of influence who carelessly condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity places them in minority are going to be called on this. Two days before the convention convened, Una Mullaly wrote in The Irish Times in response to her friend Buzz O’Neill who was beaten up on George’s Street for being gay. She challenged the idea of balance in the media, the way in which the media feels that because it is a matter of constitutional debate, an advocate of equality must be matched against an opponent,

The main problem with how the Irish media frames the debate is around a skewed view of what ‘balance’ is. ‘Middle Ireland’, the ‘silent majority’, the ‘mainstream’, gay people are told, are not ready for something so drastic as equality. I don’t know about you, but I never actually hear that middle ground. What I hear again and again is yet another articulate gay person trying to hold their temper while they are subjected to ignorant and juvenile arguments. And I hear an opposing view, generally one from the far out end of Catholicism, blustering about children’s rights (which Civil Partnership denies, thank you very much), and trying desperately to fight against equality with arguments based on their own personal belief systems or grievances. I don’t hear middle Ireland.

Then we had the Convention itself, a great day with 79 votes to 18 in favour of amending the constitution to read that the state shall enact laws providing for marriage for same-sex couples. Though the result shouldn’t have been surprising as it reflected most of the recent opinion polls on this question, it was more meaningful for having followed a weekend of deliberation and considered discussion. After that, the response of some of the leading opponents was not just to say that the only poll that matters is the one on the day, but to criticise the process they had taken part in, as seen first with Sen. Rónán Mullen tweeting less than an hour after the result was announced:

Then David Quinn blogged about the result, ‘Ireland a step closer to rejecting the value of motherhood and fatherhood’. What stood out for me here was his criticism of Frances Fitzgerald, ‘One of those politicians was Children’s Minister, Frances Fitzgerald. It is truly an astonishing turn of events when a minister for children is willing to sign away a child’s right to be raised by a mother and a father.’ He is not simply accepting her views as an alternative conclusion, but one that is obviously anti-child. Just as his fellow Iona Institute patron Breda O’Brien was to do days later, when she wrote in Saturday’s Irish Times, he ignores entirely the contributions on the Saturday of the convention, which he was there to witness, of the real life of children headed by same-sex couples. Watch Conor Prendergast and Clare O’Connell, talking about their family lives, both raised by lesbian couples (at 23:30):

or watch Colm O’Gorman, talking the conventional life he leads, raising two children, with the man he has married (at 38.30):

David Quinn talks about burden of proof. I would argue that the burden of proof is on those who claim this country should not allow these families to be recognised as married. What possible reason could there be for denying this in law?

Iona and their claims of research

This is before we delve into the controversy of the research the Iona Institute claimed on their side. As has been well documented, their submission to the convention was misleading as they quoted a single piece of research written in 2002, from Child Trends, ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do about It?’. The section from the Iona Institute submission read,

The social sciences confirm what every known society in the world has known instinctively, namely that marriage between a man and a woman is uniquely beneficial to society and to children. This is the case even though some individual marriages may be dysfunctional and harmful to children (as can any other type of family).

One of the most important child research organisations in the United States is Child Trends, which is centrist in its politics and ideological outlook.

It produced a paper in 2002 called ‘Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children and What Can We Do About It?’

This summarises what the social sciences have to say about the matter (emphasis added).

The summary is as follows: “Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage…There is thus value in promoting strong, stable marriage between biological parents.” A great deal of additional material is available that attests to this fact.

A reasonable person reading the Iona Institute submission would assume that by the matter, the quoted study discussed same-sex parents. There is in fact no reference either to same-sex parents, or to adoption or assisted reproduction by heterosexual couples. It is a comparison between instances where parents are married on the one hand, and single parents and step-parents on the other. A very similar study from 2003 by Mary Parke for the Center for Law and Social Policy, ‘Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being’, explains such a conflation in its first endnote,

The reference to biological parents is to distinguish between biological/adoptive parents and step-parents. Most studies that include data on adoptive parents include them in the biological parent category. Adopted children have very similar outcomes to children raised by both biological parents.

The Iona Institute is not the first anti-equality group to claim the Child Trends research as an argument on their side. Earlier this year, the House Republicans cited it in their brief against repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Child Trends intervened there. Tired of this constant quotation out of context, they added a statement to the online version of the study, as can be seen in the link above,

Note: This Child Trends brief summarizes research conducted in 2002, when neither same-sex parents nor adoptive parents were identified in large national surveys. Therefore, no conclusions can be drawn from this research about the wellbeing of children raised by same-sex parents or adoptive parents.

I wrote to Child Trends to let them know that their research was cited by both the Iona Institute and the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, sending links to their submissions, after reading these, Child Trends felt it was appropriate to write a formal letter to the Convention. David Norris raised this in the Seanad,

After a lengthy Twitter exchange, in which I engaged myself, beginning with the persistent Paul Moloney:

David Quinn attempted to backtrack on what he meant by the citation, to claim that the study showed there was not enough research on the question of same-sex parenting. It doesn’t, because it was not the subject in question. Or at least, no more than citing a study of Afghanistan since 2001 shows that there is not enough research on Iraq since 2003. There is plenty of research on this question, as documented by several professional medical, psychological and sociological associations, none of which indicates any reason for concern about the implications of same-sex parents. It just happens that for whatever reason, it is not a question Child Trends have ever studied. What is relevant is that it was after reading the submissions that Child Trends felt their work was misrepresented, and felt it incumbent on them to write to the convention. This has also been well documented and commented on blogs Geoff’s Shorts, Bock the Robber, in Skeptic Ink by Humanisticus, and in Eile by David Gormley. All worth reading if you have the time.

‘Sick and tired…’

How the Iona Institute misrepresented research is something of a moot point, after the convention voted clearly in favour of equal marriage, and by a somewhat stronger margin on 81 to 12 in favour of legislation to account for same-sex parenting. But it is indicative of their tactics and methods, which will be reformed come the campaign. Though they have defended its use in recent weeks, I’d be very surprised to see them quote the Child Trends research come the referendum campaign. But we’re not putting up with it any more. There has been a clear expression from different commentators to call things as they are. We had Colm O’Gorman, the day after the Convention,

Then Colette Browne wrote in the Irish Examiner, ‘Legislating for same-sex marriage will reflect changing face of families’,

THE insidious subtext of the argument against same-sex marriage is that children, currently being raised by gay and lesbian couples, are harmed by the experience. …

The argument against marriage equality today — that straight marriages will somehow be devalued if the constitutional definition of the institution is changed — is just as nonsensical. The right to marry one’s partner should be not be determined by race or creed or sexual orientation but is a basic human right that should be offered to every citizen.

Legislating for same-sex marriage, contrary to hyperbolic claims from some quarters, will not consign the role of mothers and fathers to a PC scrapheap, but will merely reflect the changing face of families in the 21st century.

And we had Carol Hunt in the Sunday Independent, ‘You’re not a bigot for refusing to accept intolerance’, talking about the process of Enlightenment,

Slavery as practised in the 18 and 19th Centuries would be anathema to us today, yet banning it was considered radical, dangerous and immoral when first agitated for. Natural law seemingly had decreed that black people were lesser beings than whites. Later this changed to equal but different.

Similarly women were denied the vote because it was argued that they were rationally inferior. And practising homosexuals were charged as criminals. Yet today, as part of our emancipatory journey, the majority in Ireland support same sex marriage. This is indeed moral progress.

We are now moving to a situation where the view that gay couples should be denied the opportunity to marry just as anyone else is being treated closer to how denying women the vote was in the 1920s. We will call prejudice what it is, disentangle the obfuscations and evasions of the opposition. This is not likely to be a pleasant campaign. But we are ready for it. And we are going to win.

Councils and the presidency

28 September, 2011 1 comment

This year saw a considerable jump in the number of county and city councils exercising their constitutional prerogative to nominate candidates for president. In 1997, the first year any candidate secured the support of four councils, eleven of the thirty-four councils supported candidates, between Derek Nally and Dana Rosemary Scallon.

This year, that figure has jumped to twenty-five, nominating four candidates between them, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, David Norris and Dana Rosemary Scallon. The bulk of these voted for Mary Davis (full breakdown below).

So we now have a field of seven candidates, with more than half nominated by Councils rather than by Oireachtas members: Mary Davis, Michael D. Higgins, Sean Gallagher, Martin McGuinness, Gay Mitchell and Dana Rosemary Scallon.

This system of nomination for the presidency has long been criticized. In researching the elections, I came across a report from The Irish Times of 26 May 1973, in which Labour Chief Whip Barry Desmond said of the “rather outdated Constitutional requirements … I would hope that in any further revision of our Constitution this question will receive objective review … with a view to broadening the democratic aspects of the scope of the nomination”.

Throughout the years, candidates who had made their wishes to contest known and who have received national media attention have failed in their attempts to win the support of councils: Alfie Byrne in 1938, Patrick McCartan in 1945 (who later secured the signatures of Labour and Clann na Talmhan TDs in an individual capacity), Eoin O’Mahony in 1966 and 1973 and Dana in 2004.

Michael Gallagher recently outlined alternative methods of securing based on signatures. If we were to move towards linking PPS numbers with the electoral register, it should not be difficult to prevent duplication and fraud, if signatories had to sign in with ID and be crossed off a database at their local Garda station. I don’t think our current system, with some sort of vetting procedure is so outrageous by international comparisons, but there is clearly demand for a change to the system to be explored. And particularly if the size of the Oireachtas is to be reduced, it will be more difficult yet to reach 20 Oireachtas signatures. We might consider a figure such as 20,000 electors, as is the case in Finland, or 50,000, which was the number who could force a referendum under the Constitution of the Irish Free State.

But while we have the current system, aspiring candidates should treat the system respectfully. Cllr Paul McAuliffe’s speech last night highlighted perhaps the biggest problem David Norris faced with councils. While his supporters had taken the time to write to him, he had not heard from Norris himself. While one might not agree with the current system, it does put either Oireachtas members or councillors in a position where they have to publicly consider the merits of a prospective candidate. Nominations from Councils are more anonymous on the nomination form, they are listed by locality, rather than specifying any voting record, making them amenable to Independents, presumably designed with that in mind. While we do have the system, we should consider what it does mean for a representative at local or national level to take their Constitutional obligation seriously, while retaining an expectation that they would facilitate a candidate in most cases. Had Norris picked six councils, which based on political alignment he believed he would have had the best chance with, and taken the time to meet with sufficient councillors there, he would likely have secured his nomination with greater ease. It would have been harder for the councillors in South Dublin or Cork to have voted against him had they had a meaningful conversation with him. Though it would have taken effort, it is how Mary Davis managed to secure such support.Here is a table summary of the Councils which nominated candidates in 1997 and for this year’s election:

1997
Derek Nally Carlow, Clare, Kildare, South Dublin, Wexford
Dana Rosemary Scallon Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Longford, North Tipperary, Wicklow
2011
Mary Davis Galway, Galway City, Kerry, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, North Tipperary, South Tipperary, Sligo, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow
Sean Gallagher Cork City, Clare, Leitrim, Meath
David Norris Fingal, Laois, Dublin City, Waterford
Dana Rosemary Scallon Carlow, Donegal, Offaly, Roscommon

Sources for the table: Wikipedia, contact with Aisling Kerr in Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Ending the closet

davidlaws I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.

Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.

Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.

That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.

It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.

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Keep 3 Trinity and 3 NUI seats or abolish the Seanad

7 November, 2009 3 comments

Three of the best cases for not abolishing Seanad Éireann to me seem to be the three elected for the University of Dublin, Shane Ross, David Norris and Ivana Bacik. Ironically, outside of wholesale abolition, their seats seem to be most at risk. I can understand the argument that if it were to be abolished now, we would lose the great independent voices they provide, but it is quite possible that we will lose them regardless.

The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1979 by 92%, allowed a redistribution of the three University of Dublin and 3 National University of Ireland seats to include graduates of other third-level institutions. Legislation has yet to be made for this provision, but Minister John Gormley has promised a change by the end of the year. This looks likely to be a move to reduce to one each the seats elected by Trinity and NUI, with the other four graduate seats elected by graduates of all other third-level institutions.

Any change of this nature implicitly accepts the idea that graduates deserve an extra voice in the Oireachtas by virtue of being a graduate. By the four general graduate seats not being tied to any particular institution, there would be no appeal in the campaign for that election to any institutional loyalty, as occurs particularly in the election for Trinity, because of its size and unity. These would be seats that would end up being fought by the political parties on a national scale, to all those who happen to be graduates. So rather than the current seats, which have long historic origins, dating back to 1613, and which have served a useful purpose by electing good Senators, an election under this proposal would be much more elitist in nature, fought on a national scale in the media but directed only at graduates of any institution. It’s easy to dismiss the current system as an historic quirk, but that would be the case under the proposed change.

However much one might dislike the idea that there are certain graduates and not others who have this extra franchise, the answer for those who find this distasteful is not to extend this elite section of the electorate, but to end it entirely. Until then, let us be thankful for the benefits of this inequality gives us in the form of the great Senators it has delivered to date.