Ireland South: Marriage equality referendum set for May

Poisonous bigotry must be challenged

The Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in Dublin announced last December that a referendum will be held in May 2015 on legalising marriage equality in Ireland. Opinion polls have shown that the majority of the Republic’s electorate supports a yes vote but the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is campaigning hard for a no vote.

LBGTQ rights activist and Socialist Party member Helen Redwood looks at the issues at stake.

So, at last the Irish government has been dragged into advocating marriage equality. Should the referendum be carried, it will represent a milestone in the fight against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) discrimination. It will also represent a huge break from one of the central tenets of Catholicism which has consistently perpetuated poisonous bigotry against LGBTQ people.

Not trail-blazers for equality

Far from being trail-blazers, the government tails behind 11 EU countries (the first being Holland in 2001) and 18 countries worldwide (Finland being the most recent) which already have marriage equality, none of whom have experienced the predicted collapse of civilisation.

Winning the right to civil partnership was an important step enabling LGBTQ couples to avail of many legal securities which marriage brings. However, it is not enough. There are 160 differences between civil partnership and marriage, one of the most important being that a civil partnership is not deemed to be a family and is therefore excluded from family law.

Challenge to bigoted arguments needed

A recent Red C poll shows 77% support for same sex marriage but 46% have reservations. Undoubtedly these ‘reservations’ concern child-rearing and this will be the soft-underbelly that the Vote No campaign will target. It will be a huge mistake to bow to bigotry and to not take these arguments head on.

Their banner “Every child deserves a mother and a father” is an insult – an insult to the LGBTQ couples who are currently raising families; an insult to single mothers who are raising one quarter of all children in Ireland; an insult to the 30,000 single fathers who are also doing so. Of course, should the No vote succeed, LGBTQ couples will continue to have families but will be denied the full legal protections for parents and children alike that marriage confers.

‘No’ side – homophobic and hypocritical

It is an emotional appeal, an idealisation of the family that has no bearing on the reality of what is really required to provide secure, nurturing homes for children. That the majority of child abuse happens behind the closed doors of the family is happily ignored by No vote advocates such as the Catholic Iona Institute.

Where are their protestations at government policy which has presided over €400 million cuts in Child Benefit since 2009 (with only €70 million restored in the 2015 budget) which has contributed to the situation that children represent one quarter of Ireland’s poor? Far from overseeing the destruction of the nuclear family, the Government has simply widened their definitions. They will continue to offload responsibilities of the state to provide security and welfare to its citizens onto increasingly burdened families whatever their composition.

End all homophobic discrimination

The government poses as the standard bearers of equality, yet presides over widening inequality. Marriage equality is a hugely significant gain for the LGBTQ community but will not end other forms of legal discrimination such as the right of Catholic schools to sack a teacher simply for being gay; nor will it automatically end homophobic bullying in schools. In France, attacks on LGBTQ people actually rose in the year following the introduction of marriage equality.

The Yes campaign must vigorously expose the bigotry and lies of the No campaign and counter its efforts to whip up prejudice. The referendum does not represent a choice between allowing LGBTQ relationships and families, or not – they already exist and will continue to exist; it is about equality of access to the legal supports that society offers committed couples and their children.

A strong and combative approach is vital to secure the Yes vote, but will also create the basis for a continuing campaign to demolish remaining discriminatory legislation as well as an on-going challenge to anti-gay prejudice.

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March 2015