Gays, Greens and Fianna Fáil: the civil partnership battle

A new oral history book by the ‘Irish Times’ columnist Una Mullally looks back on the long campaign that led to the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage. In this extract, key players recall a 2007 battle between the then coalition ‘partners’ over the introduction of civil partnership

This oral history has contributions from:

Dermot Ahern
Former minister for justice

Dan Boyle
Former Green Party TD and senator

Suzy Byrne
Political blogger, Maman Poulet


Ciarán Cuffe
Former Green Party TD

John Gormley
Former minister for the environment and former Green Party leader

John Hanafin
Former Fianna Fáil senator

Annie Hanlon
Founding member of LGBT Noise

Gráinne Healy
Chairwoman of Marriage Equality

Ciarán Ó Cuinn
Dermot Ahern's then adviser

Eamon Ryan
Former minister for communications

Brian Sheehan
Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen)

Annie Hanlon I remember one day we were called into the Dáil. It was the time the Green Party were in coalition with Fianna Fáil. John Gormley basically called in representatives of all the different LGBT rights groups to tell us that they had dropped marriage off their agenda after the election. And that they had no choice; they had to do it because of their power-sharing agreement with Fianna Fáil. I just remember that day, us all feeling like banging our heads off a wall – that finally a party that was actually pro-marriage and had that in their manifesto was now just backtracking and forgetting it, dropping that particular promise as soon as they got into power. That really made us all realise how difficult a battle it was going to be in political terms.

Brian Sheehan John Gormley said, "Look, we've got this, we can build on it, but it's going to take an awful lot of work to get this through our coalition partners, and we need to find the armaments. We need per- suasion, we need to maximise this, the civil partnership process, and we have a challenge on our hands to even deliver this."

John Gormley I honestly don't recall any meetings at that point.

Brian Sheehan Another organisation board member was saying, "What can we do to make the Greens deliver on their electoral promise?" And it was a really interesting one because I don't think other organisations got the point – that this actually was a huge achievement for the Greens and those in Fianna Fáil pushing for it to deliver civil partnership, and that it was going to be a real challenge within the political structure to get civil partnership through cabinet. It was illustrative of the point that people in some organisations weren't attuned to the actual realpolitik of how the f*** were we going to deliver civil partnership.

John Gormley This was the hardest thing to take. We were actually accused of institutionalising discrimination by some in the LGBT community. They turned it on its head. I tried to explain to them that no change comes overnight. Look at the ending of slavery or giving the vote to women. It has always been incremental. I also felt that the Labour Party were manipulating these groups for political purposes.

Eamon Ryan The Labour Party would have been seen as similarly interested, in fairness, in relation to the gay-rights issue. From a Labour Party perspective, they wanted to be saying we were selling out, we're yellow, not green. It was part of a wider narrative in government.

Gráinne Healy I think Ciarán Cuffe, because he had an equality brief, was the one who felt our criticisms most painfully. He really wanted us to do as Glen had done and say, "Okay, grand, and we're all 100 per cent and this is hunky-dory and we're all for it." We said, "No, Ciarán, we can't do that. We're holding the line that it's equality." And that means sometimes when we go to things and we speak, as has happened at an event . . . I remember in the Hilton hotel where I said I was really disappointed that the Greens weren't holding the equality line and that they were settling. And he was furious, really furious, lost his temper.

Ciarán Cuffe It was frustrating. It was frustrating to take part in Pride and realise – I can't remember what year it was – there were a lot of Pride participants who were against civil partnership.

Gráinne Healy I think he felt that once they were in power – and John Gormley would have had a touch of that as well – they found it very difficult to accept any criticism. I think they just thought, Now that we're in and we're doing our best, everybody just has to accept that and go with it. I'm a huge supporter of the good things Labour have done over the years. I'm not a member of the party, but I'll say good things about Gilmore. But I'll also have to be able to say, "I don't think you're doing the right thing." So Cuffe almost took it as a personal criticism in some ways, which the criticism was never meant as. It was meant as: you're in power, we understand that you say that's as much as you can get, but that doesn't mean that we have to stop saying it's not enough. During the progress of the legislation a division appeared to occur between the Green Party and Fianna Fáil. From the outside it seemed as though the minister for justice, Dermot Ahern, was perceived to be dragging his heels on the Bill, while the Greens were exerting pressure to push it through.

Ciarán Cuffe I took it upon myself to meet on several occasions with the ministers for justice to progress various issues, and probably the most substantial one was to progress civil partnership. The nature of government is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. In other words, things progress when there's political pressure for them to be progressed. Our view was that the government would not last the full term and that we needed to progress certain legislation early on if we were to be successful.

Dermot Ahern Ciarán Cuffe used to contact us and try to allege that we were dragging our heels on it, and that he was pushing us all the time. It wasn't that simple, to be honest. They wanted it that simple, but it wasn't that simple. At the end of the day, particularly in Justice, every piece of legislation you pass, the attorney general has to completely vet it and be happy. The attorney general is at cabinet, so if I bring a piece of legislation to cabinet, I don't want the attorney general coming up and saying, "Excuse me, that's a load of horseshit, I didn't approve this." So I had to be sure the attorney general and anyone that he had advising him was happy.

Ciarán Cuffe I always felt I had to convince Brian Lenihan of the importance of this issue. Dermot Ahern was much more businesslike, probably less enthusiastic than Brian Lenihan – if that were possible.

Dermot Ahern They used to make out it was their baby and they had the complete monopoly on it. They would have said that was their big thing, big-ticket item. It was sometimes made out that our party were dragged kicking and screaming to do it. We weren't.

Ciarán Ó Cuinn Well, look, number one, it was in the Fianna Fáil manifesto. So before the programme for government, before the Greens and Fianna Fáil ever dreamed about going into government together, it was in the Fianna Fáil manifesto. Ciarán Cuffe as a backbencher TD wouldn't have known anything about the AG's advice. Well, Gormley would have briefed him, I suppose. The Greens, I think, wanted to use this piece of legislation as a badge of honour to show the "Greens in government" and the "Greens' social agenda". And that's fine. Fair play to them. But, you know, wanting to show how great you are and having a fight at Fianna Fáil's expense isn't always the best way to get something in through the Dáil. So I basically said we're not playing that game, and we just did it at our own pace, told them whatever we had to do whenever we had to, but just didn't let people play those sort of games with it. Like, Ciarán Cuffe and company are good people, but what did they expect Fianna Fáil to do? To say, "We don't want to do this," or, "We're doing this because the Greens are making us do it"? I never saw the problem. Some of them are very bitter.

Eamon Ryan The two gates of Government Buildings: one is the attorney general's looking over, and the other is Finance. They're the two powers in government. Even at that time with Brian Lenihan, where we felt with Brian we had a similar-thinking person who was pushing it through reasonably quickly in a kind of creative enough sort of way, it's still not easy. It became slower with Dermot, and maybe that's because it takes time to draft complex legislation. But our relationship wouldn't have been as good, without disparaging the guy.

Ciarán Ó Cuinn They liked the idea of having Dermot, as they saw a very conservative sort of fella, or a socially conservative fella, who they could force civil partnership on. But that didn't happen. If they have a narrative or had a narrative in their head of making that happen, that's fair enough, but at the end of the day that's political, and it's not actually what happened.

Dermot Ahern Anyone who painted me as being conservative was wrong. I've particular views in relation to things. I have a view in relation to abortion because I always used to say, "It's very simple. I've adopted children. Need I say any more?" That's my attitude. Here's me, here's my wife; we would take any amount of children as adoptive parents. So to say that I'm ultraconservative is wrong. It's wrong to paint anyone, but there's nothing I can do about that.

Eamon Ryan The interesting question was in terms of would it have gone through or not? There is a tendency in Fianna Fáil not to divide. But, I mean, for us it was important. Particularly because the further on we went into government, we were under huge pressure and huge difficulty. We needed wins. And civil partnership we would have seen as one of the bigger wins that we could get. So it was important for us and it was a frustrating experience for us in terms of what we saw as a slowing-down of the process. And that would have created a fair bit of tension. And the Department of Justice is not an easy one to fight with. They tend to be more secretive than other departments, more conservative than other departments. And they've got so much legislation in play. You're relying on the minister and you have to trust the minister if he's saying, "I'm going as fast as I can." You can't reasonably go directly into the department and instruct the officials to go faster or do things differently. So with Justice it would have been one of our greatest points of tension. I think John Gormley would have had fairly protracted negotiations with Brian Cowen to get Dermot Ahern to move quicker.

John Gormley We never got the impression that Justice was enthusiastic for this legislation. Lenihan seemed amenable.

Ciarán Cuffe We didn't control the Department of Justice, but my strong view would be that legislation wouldn't have happened but for the Green Party's presence in government. Now I would say that, wouldn't I? But my exposure to two justice ministers who had responsibility for it . . . I didn't detect any great enthusiasm for it from either of them.

Suzy Byrne It wasn't the Greens that got any of the credit for what happened. Dermot Ahern came out glowing, because he had been set up by Glen even to be so.

John Hanafin If the Greens hadn't looked for it, it just wouldn't have happened.

Dermot Ahern In fairness, Kieran Rose from Glen and those gave credit where credit was due. It's not a matter of claiming credit anyway. I did a job. I was asked to do a job. I saw it through. I didn't rush it, but equally so I didn't play politics with it. Basically, Kieran Rose and his organisation came out and thanked me. And they've been extremely complimentary to me ever since.

Dan Boyle We felt very badly about it because we did all the pushing.

Suzy Byrne But where you might have in other coalition governments the smaller party coming out victorious in something, the Greens didn't. They tried, saying, "Without us this wouldn't have happened," but it was definitely, "This legislation was on Fianna Fáil's terms." The Greens suffered a lot. They didn't have the spin or the ability to market the stuff as well. They got a lot of the pressure and none of the credit.

This is an edited extract from In the Name of Love: The Movement for Marriage Equality in Ireland, by Una Mullally, published by the History Press