Progress on gay marriage must be handled with care

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 01:00

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.

The opposite is the case because these couples are pioneers who have helped to radically alter the perception of lesbian and gay relationships across the country. By celebrating their relationships in the open they have dispelled fears of the unknown.

It does not help the cause of gay rights for this issue to become the subject of inter-party competition or a measure of assertiveness between the Coalition partners. Eamon Gilmore has a genuine commitment on the issue, and a track record in advocating the “civil partnership as stepping stone” strategy, but the manner of his intervention into the debate this week is curious.

One suspects it owes as much to a perceived need to outflank gay rights advocates in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil who have been more active of late or, alternatively, to emphasise the distance between Labour and the official Fine Gael view.

For the deputy leader of Government to speak outside his departmental remit is permitted, especially when he is a party leader, but it is unusual.

The fact that Gilmore framed his call for the introduction of gay marriage within a photocall with one gay rights organisation, and a single-issue one at that, is also curious.

One also wonders if the cause of gay marriage is advanced by seeking to flush out the Taoiseach on the issue when there is no immediate prospect of a referendum. It was inevitable that once the Tánaiste offered a public view the Taoiseach would come under pressure to state or restate his position.

On a number of occasions, and most recently during the last general election campaign, Enda Kenny publicly declined to support the introduction of gay marriage.

If the constitutional change necessary to enable gay marriage is to be introduced during Kenny’s premiership, it will have to be with his support and on foot of his political leadership.

Pursuing him on the topic as Taoiseach now may generate colourful headlines but it could be counterproductive. Given his past utterances and the strength of feeling on the issue in his party and the country, Kenny may need wriggle room for an Obama or Cameron-like evolution in political view.

I have long been of the view that this Government’s proposed constitutional convention is a sham. It will be the purgatory into which a selection of constitutional issues will be parked before being further delayed or diverted when they return to the parliamentary process. It is no coincidence that gay marriage is among those issues.

The surrounding debate may provide some opportunity for the issue to be aired, but the prospects and timing for constitutional change on gay marriage will be shaped on the ground, not in the constitutional convention.

Civil partnership will generate more and more acceptance and make the enduring discrimination all the more apparent. In time gay marriage will happen. This is a politically complex challenge. Its progress needs to be handled with care.

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