Same-sex marriage moves centre-stage at constitutional convention

Body receives more than 1,000 submissions


Not every country is debating same-sex marriage; it just sometimes feels that way. In the past two weeks alone, the issue has reached the United States supreme court for the first time, been approved by parliament in Uruguay, and moved a step closer to becoming law in France, where the government’s large majority should see it pass despite a stronger- than-expected mobilisation by opponents. So far 11 countries have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples and in many more the issue is up for discussion.

This weekend, the topic will move centre-stage in Ireland when the constitutional convention meets to decide whether to recommend that it be put to a referendum. The body’s 100 members, including 33 politicians and 66 ordinary citizens, who gather in Dublin tomorrow morning will hear from legal experts as well as selected supporters and opponents of the idea before deliberating among themselves and casting a ballot. Their conclusion will be sent to the Government, which must then hold a debate in the Oireachtas before setting out its response.

The marriage debate has attracted by far the biggest public response to the convention to date, with more than 1,000 submissions made by advocacy groups and members of the public. All the main political parties have endorsed same-sex marriage; Fine Gael has not taken an official position, but its 12 members on the convention will have a free vote.

Bishops’ argument

The submissions reveal the depth of feeling on both sides of the debate. In its contribution, the Catholic Bishops Conference argues that same-sex marriage would be damaging to the “common good” and threatens to cease co-operating with the civil element of marriage during all church ceremonies.

“The debate about same-sex marriage is ultimately a debate about motherhood and fatherhood and the value we place on them,” says David Quinn of the Iona Institute, a religious advocacy group.

“Once you sign on to same-sex marriage, you are automatically and logically also denying that there is anything important about sexual complementarity, anything important about the differences between mothers and fathers and men and women.”

For its supporters, the reform would end what they argue is an anachronistic form of discrimination. They point to recent opinion polls that suggest up to 73 per cent of voters are in favour of the idea. “This is a perfect opportunity to eradicate one of the last bastions of discrimination in Irish law and practice,” says Mark Kelly, director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “Public opinion recently has shown that it is in fact ahead of political opinion on this point, and we’re counting on the convention, which has a majority of members of the public, to capture that spirit of change and equality.”

Foundation of family

The Constitution does not make reference to marriage specifically between a man and a woman; it simply states that marriage is the foundation of the family. But Irish courts have consistently interpreted the word “marriage” in the Constitution as applying only to the legal union of a man and a woman.

In an attempt to provide legal recognition to same-sex couples, the Oireachtas enacted a civil partnership law with all-party support in 2010. Some 1,024 same-sex couples across all counties have availed of this since the first ceremony in April 2011, but supporters of an extension in marriage rights point to a large number of statutory differences between civil partnership and marriage. For example, civil partnership does not permit children to have a legally recognised relationship with their parents – only with the biological one. Neither does it recognise same-sex couples’ rights to many social supports that they may need in hardship situations.

Crucially, in the eyes of champions of same-sex marriage, momentum has been on their side in recent years. Since the turn of the century, 11 countries, including Spain, Canada, the Netherlands and Argentina, have extended marriage rights. So have nine US states. France and the UK, where the House of Commons has passed a same-sex marriage Bill, are likely to follow suit. At home, as the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) points out in its submission, opinion polls suggest public support is growing.


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