The move to civil union for gays and lesbians is not an immense legislative leap, but an incremental step built on civil partnership law
The right to marry is a basic human right, as set out in the UN Charter of Human Rights and other human rights treaties. In a democratic republic based on equal citizenship, civil marriage should be open to all citizens, including lesbians and gay men.
The fact that our Constitution and its provisions relating to marriage have been interpreted by the courts to exclude same-sex couples from this fundamental human right is deeply regrettable. While this constitutional barrier is in force, lesbians and gay men will not have full equality under our Constitution.
Public opinion is in favour of opening out civil marriage to same-sex couples. In a recent Government opinion poll 73 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage. There is an all-party consensus, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voting in favour of civil marriage for all. The Equality Authority and other bodies have also called for civil marriage.
Equally, the introduction of civil partnership in April last year has had a transformative effect on social attitudes and in the status of gay people in our society. In the nine months from April 2011 to the end of the year, more than 500 couples went to their registry offices in all counties and before the registrar solemnly affirmed their love and commitment to one another.
These legal commitments are then followed by joyful celebrations where family, friends, colleagues and neighbours give their affirmation of the profound commitment the couple have just given to one another.
These new civil partnership celebrations are extraordinary in their parallel to traditional wedding celebrations. One might have thought that this new status of civil partnership and the consequent celebration rituals would take some time to be established and widely accepted.
However, almost overnight and as if by some “hidden hand”, gay couples and their families and friends have adopted the traditional wedding rituals of the hotel reception, speeches with laughter and some teary moments, children running around, dinner, dancing . . . and the Fields of Athenry!
There has been an enthusiastic general welcome for these new wedding celebrations, as evidenced by the high-profile media coverage of delighted couples, including on the front pages of local newspapers throughout the country.
I suggest that the people of Ireland in this open-hearted welcoming of civil partnerships, have spoken and are saying we are entitled to marry. The hundreds of lesbian and gay couples who have publicly celebrated their civil partnerships have brought the day of civil marriages much, much closer.
To move to marriage now is not a massive legislative leap; it is an incremental step building on the powerful civil partnership legislation. With the singular exception of parenting (where reform is urgently needed) civil partnership provides almost all of the responsibilities and rights of civil marriage.
The Colley Working Group Report on Domestic Partnership (2006) laid the foundations for progress in this area, and was the intellectual basis for the civil partnership legislation and for the Labour Party’s Civil Unions Bill 2007, both closely modelled on marriage. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) representative, Eoin Collins, successfully persuaded the working group that civil marriage was the ultimate solution. The Colley group report makes the powerful point that: “The introduction of civil marriage for same-sex couples would achieve equality of status with opposite sex couples and such recognition that would underpin a wider equality for gay and lesbian people.”
For example, the introduction of full constitutional equality would be another great signal and support for young people who are coming out, perhaps feeling isolated and vulnerable to bullying in school, that this State says that they are equally cherished under our Constitution.
The opening out of civil marriage to all couples would enhance our shared national values of equal citizenship and would have resonance in related areas of difference and inclusion such as ethnic origins.
I suggest that the “court of public opinion” has spoken, and that now is the time to take the next incremental step to the right to marry. In nearly all other countries that now have civil marriage, it was on the basis of civil partnership providing the “stepping stone”.
The Civil Partnership Act is a great achievement for Irish society and for the Oireachtas. Despite significant opposition at times, our legislators co-operated to get this complex piece of legislation on to the statute books in record time.
In 1993 we achieved decriminalisation of gay men based on equality, followed by powerful equality legislation, civil partnership, and now progress towards civil marriage.
In a relatively short period of time, Ireland has moved from being one of the most unwelcoming countries to gay people, to being one of the most progressive globally.
The constitutional convention provides a forum to further build a solid consensus for civil marriage and to tease out all the issues. Glen looks forward to this opportunity for further engagement so that civil marriage for lesbians and gays can be achieved as soon as possible.
Kieran Rose is chair of Glen, a member of the board of the Equality Authority, and of the Working Group on the Merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority.