Gay people no threat to a robust institution

Opinion: The idea that marriage is under threat is crucial to the mindset of those opposing gay marriage

Will you be my prince? “The horrible truth is that ... an awful lot of heterosexual couples still rather like the idea of being married.” Photograph: PA

Will you be my prince? “The horrible truth is that ... an awful lot of heterosexual couples still rather like the idea of being married.” Photograph: PA


Those opposed to gay marriage tell us that their problem is not with the “gay” but with the “marriage”. They love, honour and respect homosexual people. But they fear that allowing them to marry each other will undermine marriage itself.

And since marriage as they understand it is the foundation of social order, society, even civilisation, will fall apart. Some will express this point of view in rather alarmist terms, but most are more measured and try to argue from some kind of evidence. So let’s try to be calm and ask what the evidence really suggests.

On September 30th last the Iona Institute issued a press release in reaction to the release by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of figures showing that the marriage rate in Ireland had fallen from 4.5 per thousand in 2010 to 4.3 per thousand in 2011. Commenting on the figures, David Quinn of the institute said: “Irish people need to abandon the idea that the institution of marriage in this country is in good health. It isn’t. Marriage is in sharp decline by every measure.”

This is a rather large claim: the actual decrease in the number of marriages between 2010 and 2011 was 715 – not exactly seismic. But let’s be generous and say that at least there was evidence of a decline on which to base the prognostications of doom.

But last month, the CSO gave us updated figures for the marriage rate in 2012. Guess what? It rose from 4.3 to 4.6. So of course the Iona Institute issued a press release saying “Irish people need to abandon the idea that the institution of marriage in this country is in poor health. It isn’t. Marriage is sharply rising by every measure.” Well, no it didn’t; in fact it said nothing. The increase in marriage didn’t fit its doom-mongering narrative. It retreated into sullen silence.

The claim that “Marriage is in sharp decline by every measure” is crucial to the mindset of those who see gay marriage as a threat to the social order. They have to see heterosexual marriage – the good old mammy, daddy and kids institution – as an endangered species, a creature so weak that it can be blown asunder by the idea of two men taking formal marriage vows. But this claim is, frankly, garbage. The true story is the utterly remarkable survival of marriage. It has proven to be far more robust than either conservatives or radicals ever imagined.

Logically, marriage in Ireland really should be in sharp decline. It lost three of its greatest props. No one has to get married for sex anymore. The social and religious pressure to be married has hugely diminished. And the overwhelming economic necessity for a woman to have a husband has all but disappeared. It is not at all surprising that, in these circumstances, very large numbers of Irish people choose to conduct their relationships outside marriage. What is surprising is that even larger numbers of Irish people still want to be married.

Contrary to the claim that marriage is in sharp decline by every measure, the last census showed that the married population had increased by close to 10 per cent in just five years, from 1.56 million to 1.7 million.

This is no statistical glitch: every recent census has shown a significant increase in the married population. In 1996, just 1.36 million people living in Ireland were married. Thus, in the period when the nasty social liberals have been in the ascendant – gay rights, divorce, access to contraception – there has been a massive 20 per cent increase in the number of people living in old-fashioned mammy and daddy marriages.

The truth is that even with all the radical social changes and even with factors like emigration and economic pessimism that depress the marriage rate, a lot more people get married in Ireland now than during the years when the Catholic Church was in almost complete control of the moral and legal environment in Ireland. In 1960, there were 15,465 marriages in Ireland. In 2012, there were 21,245.

But on the wall of the Iona Institute the clock is stuck at a minute to midnight. It is like one of those doomsday cults who have to live on after the world doesn’t end as predicted. Marriage was going to be destroyed by artificial contraception, by married women taking jobs, by divorce. But the damned institution won’t do its apocalyptic duty and die. The horrible truth is that an awful lot of heterosexual couples still rather like the idea of being married. They don’t have to get married – they want to.

They’re fools, of course. They don’t realise that the homosexuals are coming and the sky is falling. The smug marrieds have no idea that married gay men and women are about to destroy marriage and civilisation as we know it. Though if it wasn’t them it would be someone else.

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