Progress on gay marriage must be handled with care
Pursuing the Taoiseach on gay marriage may generate colourful headlines but it could be counterproductive
THIS WEEK a relative told me she has two weddings to attend one day after the other in mid-August – one of her cousins is marrying her long-time boyfriend and two gay friends of hers are also tying the knot.
Her gay pals are, of course, not getting married; they are entering into a civil partnership. However, her remark was indicative of the extent to which Irish people, at least of her generation, tend to see same-sex civil partnership and marriage as the same thing.
People talk about getting a wedding present for their gay friends, not of a civil partnership present.
The terms “big day” and “happy couple” are used irrespective of whether the event involves a heterosexual or homosexual couple.
This weekend it is almost exactly two years since the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitation Act 2010 was passed by overwhelming majorities in both the Dáil and Seanad.
In settling in 2010 for something short of marriage and not forcing the issue to a contentious constitutional referendum, gay rights groups like Glen and its supporters in the political parties argued that civil partnership was a stepping stone to achieving true equality through constitutional change.
The political context around gay marriage in Ireland, as elsewhere, has developed more rapidly than might have been expected in 2010. When the first civil partnership ceremonies were held in each county in the spring of 2011, they featured on the front pages of local newspapers. As predicted, however, the novelty value wore off and coverage was relegated to the photo sections.
Hotels, photographers and cake makers have tweaked their wedding fair presentations and advertising to pitch for civil partnership business.
In recent months both David Cameron and Barack Obama have spoken of how their personal positions have evolved and they are now prepared to publicly support the introduction of gay marriage. As a result, legal change will now occur more rapidly in those countries.
In Ireland, however, the prospects for gay marriage are complicated and inevitably delayed by constitutional considerations. The bottom line is that a referendum is necessary, and any such referendum will have to be fought within the constraints of the McKenna and Coughlan judgments.
The growing popular acceptance of same-sex civil partnership does not mean there is majority support in Ireland for the introduction of gay marriage. One must exercise caution in interpreting opinion polls outside of an actual referendum campaign.
There is still some distance to be travelled.
Forcing the issue in a haphazard way is counterproductive. Emphasising or, in some instances, overstating the gap between civil marriage and civil partnership not only serves to endanger the success of a future referendum campaign but also runs the risk of disrespecting those who have entered into civil partnerships by somehow suggesting they are complicit in their own discrimination.