Government’s dictatorial attitude makes people slow to say they’re voting No

‘The unsubtle message is that the only reason anyone could have for supporting the No side is that they are homophobic bigots’

‘If we redefine marriage as the Government proposes, we redefine the family as well. And we redefine it in a way that will leave some children disadvantaged.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘If we redefine marriage as the Government proposes, we redefine the family as well. And we redefine it in a way that will leave some children disadvantaged.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

As a member of Seanad Éireann for many years, I am proud to have been involved in a number of constitutional referendums – the pro-life amendment (1983), the divorce referendums (1986 & 1995) and abortion referendums (1992 & 2002).

In each of these referendums there was a good national debate, in the media and elsewhere. It was fairly balanced, and that balance was reflected in the Oireachtas. In the light of past experience, it is both puzzling and shocking to witness the mawkish and undemocratic way the coming referendum on marriage is being carried on. Why are so many people so reluctant to say they are voting No? The dictatorial attitude of the Coalition Government is largely to blame, and it is bad for democracy.

We have had public servants such as gardaí, a retired Supreme Court judge, the Law Society, and even the IDA and private businesses calling for a Yes vote, along with practically all of the political parties. None of them appears to see how inappropriate and undemocratic their behaviour is. There is no rational argument from the Yes side, just emotive catchcries and accusations of homophobia. The intention seems to be to brainwash and bully the public into the Yes camp without considering any counter arguments.

The 1937 Constitution did not create marriage and the family. It just acknowledged, correctly, what has existed for millenniums: that marriage is between one man and one woman. Same-sex marriage repudiates this and can lead to many other foreseen and unforeseen consequences. There is absolutely no need for such a move, as the Civil Partnership Act 2010 looks after the needs of gay people living together as regards property, tax, and inheritance, etc.

Interestingly, same-sex marriage laws in some European countries to date were all imposed by either legislatures or the courts. Wherever the ordinary citizens got the opportunity to decide in a referendum, same-sex marriage invariably lost. In recent years it was rejected in Croatia, Slovenia and California by the people in popular referendums.

A recent cut in public funding to Accord, which supports marriage, is a warning now as to what may be imposed if the referendum is passed. We already saw with previous legislation the threat to hospital funding where doctors objected to abortions on conscientious grounds.

If we redefine marriage as the Government proposes, we redefine the family as well. And we redefine it in a way that will leave some children disadvantaged. Two men, no matter how loving or committed or stable their relationship, cannot give a child a mother. Two women, whatever else they can give a child, cannot give a father. If the referendum is passed, children will be born who, from before they are even conceived will be intended to have either no father or no mother.

Many children in Ireland are raised by only one of their parents, many of whom do a heroic job to give their children the best upbringing possible and it is right to acknowledge that. But very few lone parents set out with the intention of becoming lone parents. Whatever the circumstances that left them facing the challenge of raising a child alone, it is almost never something they set out deliberately to do. This contrasts sharply with the situation of a child who is conceived using a donated egg and sperm (and possibly the womb of a surrogate mother) in order to provide a child for a same-sex couple. These children will, in every case, be deliberately deprived of a mother or a father. And telling them they shouldn’t have a problem with this because they can find out, when they’re 18, who their missing parent is only adds insult to injury.

There is much more that could be said about the serious consequences of what the Government continues to insist is just a simple change. But there is one aspect of the current campaign that cannot go unmentioned for it concerns the very health of our democratic system.

I can recall no election or referendum campaign previously in which so many people felt afraid to say what they truly believe. There are reasonable concerns to be raised about the Government’s proposal, but they are being treated as if they are not. In fact, not only are they treated as unreasonable but they are dismissed as mere cover for objections based on the vilest of motives.

The unsubtle message is that the only reason anyone could have for supporting the No side is that they are homophobic bigots. Wherever you stand on the referendum, surely we can all agree that the best interests of our society are served by having a debate in which all sides are treated with respect.

Des Hanafin is a former Fianna Fáil Senator

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