A lucid debate is vital ahead of referendum on marriage

Opinion: People who defend the institution as currently constituted are subjected to real hatred


According to the Government, the citizens of this country will be asked to vote next year on our Constitution and society’s definition of marriage.

We have not yet had a proper debate on how marriage ought to be defined, and why. Instead, we’re asking whether it should be okay to brand one side of the discussion as “homophobic”.

A recent editorial in this newspaper asked whether it was not “legitimate, if not inadvisable, to be able to describe them as homophobic”. Presumably, “them” referred to the Iona Institute, the Catholic Church and anyone else who wishes to keep the current, long-established, definition of marriage.

In the past, to suggest that somebody feared or loathed homosexual people might not have been considered defamatory, assuming the word came over the radar at all. It is a measure of people’s shared commitment to tolerance that the term homophobic is not just insulting now, but also libellous.

It is arguably more libellous to apply it to a mainstream Christian or other believers whose support for the current definition of marriage goes hand-in-hand with the non-optional requirement of, not just tolerance, but unconditional love of other people, regardless of viewpoint, values or state in life.

In article 40.3.2 of our Constitution, the State guarantees to protect from unjust attack and vindicate the good name of the Irish citizen.

This guarantee is set out in the Defamation Act 2009 where a “defamatory statement” is defined as a “statement that tends to injure a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society”.

Defamation, in our jurisprudence, has been further defined as the wrongful publication of a false statement about a person, which tends to lower that person in the eyes of right-thinking members of society or which tends to hold that person up to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or causes that person to be shunned or avoided by right-thinking members of society.

Irrational hatred
The term homophobia is widely understood to mean

“an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people, hatred and discrimination”. This is how the Oxford dictionary defines it.

In order to have a rational discussion some ground rules must be agreed. There is a right to a good name. That right is infringed when you use a term that exposes a person to contempt and wrongfully lowers their reputation in the eyes of the right-thinking members of society. Homophobe is a term which describes a person as having an irrational hatred of gay people.

It would be strange for gay rights supporters to argue that the term homophobic was not defamatory. They, more than anybody else, have reason to understand how abhorrent homophobia is. But it is perhaps those on the supposedly conservative side of the debate who have the best insight into how wounding and damaging it is to be called homophobic.

If a long-held and reasonable view that marriage requires the union of a man and a woman is equated with hatred of other people, that is unjust and it will not help public debate. The use of pejorative and insulting terms to characterise opponents or their motivations should not be mistaken for rational inquiry or discourse.

Opponents of next year’s referendum will argue that redefining marriage also redefines parenthood. That society should not deny children the right to the love of a mother and father wherever possible. That the adult right to have a child should not be elevated above a child’s superior right to optimum parenting circumstances, which includes retaining the natural biological ties wherever possible.

How can it be homophobic to make these arguments? What an injustice to countless parents who love their gay children unconditionally and support them in every way, but still believe that marriage is for another kind of relationship. How dare anyone accuse such parents of an irrational aversion towards their children?

Abuse of the term homophobia also detracts from the real hatred that’s out there. There are homophobic laws in Russia at present and in Uganda, where people are criminalised for homosexuality.

There is also real hatred about towards people who defend marriage as presently constituted. I have been threatened and subjected to terms that are not fit to print. But I am a politician with a thick skin and a determined streak. What about others who might honestly wish to contribute their “conservative” ideas respectfully? Are they to be branded as equivalent to racist?

Will the Referendum Commission be termed homophobic for daring to set out the arguments in favour of traditional marriage? Will any politician who calls for both sides to be heard be derided as an apologist for homophobia?

The writer of The Irish Times editorial referred to above seemed to think our democracy was stronger for this disintegration of debate and civility into unadulterated nastiness.

‘Chilling effect’
But isn’t this really about a new form of bullying? Isn’t it about framing the debate on marriage so that more and more people feel disinclined to publicly oppose change? Isn’t this about the

“chilling effect”?

Pat Rabbitte says public figures can’t expect “Marquess of Queensbury” rules but that is exactly what politicians rightly called for in last year’s abortion debate. He said that recourse to a defamation action stifles debate. On the contrary, defamation law and the constitutional right to one’s good name provide a minimum standard of protection and respect. Such protections exist as much for the people Rabbitte may dislike as for those he likes.

Senator Rónán Mullen is an Independent Senator representing NUI

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