Land scarred by 'Mental Civil War'
I needed to blow the whistle so that I could tell my as yet unborn grandchildren
Last Monday evening I was scheduled to launch a magazine for the transition year students in a school down West. I do these kinds of thing fairly frequently, always pro bono. On Monday afternoon, my car broke down, so, in the tow truck to the car hospital, I called the school principal to see if someone might come and collect me. She was relieved to hear that I was close at hand and promised to dispatch a posse. Then she ventured something else: earlier in the day, she had received calls from activists on the Yes side in the same-sex marriage referendum asking her why the hell was I being allowed to speak in the school. Did she not know what "that fellow stands for"?
The principal told them I had been invited as a journalist to speak at the launch of a school magazine. It was a private gathering - nothing to do with the referendum. Unappeased, the callers intimated that they might have something to say if the event went ahead. The principal, determined not to be intimidated, told them she would have to call the gardai if any attempt was made to disrupt the launch.
As the event kicked off at 7.30, I scanned the audience for the hate-filled faces I've lately learned to recognise. But the event passed off peacefully and, afterwards, discussing the episode with the principal, she asked me not to identify the school in anything I might write about it.
This is what we have come to by virtue of the unaccountable surrender of our political class and media to perhaps the ugliest lobby group to cast its shadow over Irish life in the years of our independence. Held to ransom by a tiny indigenous minority with global muscle, we are enjoined to reach a sabotaging hand into our Constitution, and anyone who dissents becomes an instant public hate figure.
My family and I have been living this for 16 months, since I was attacked, without basis or evidence, by a drag queen on a TV talk show. In all my years observing and writing about the political life of Ireland, I have never encountered anything like the venom of the baying mob that descended on me afterwards, or the duplicity and cowardice of media people who joined in. What I have observed over this past 16 months has chilled me to the quick, and alerted me to the fragility of our democracy.
This is Ireland 2015 - an Ireland where reason is alien, where the truth fears to speak its name in the face of hatred, demonisation and lies, and our supposedly free press not merely averts its gaze but runs, when it can, with the mob, offering a sullen tokenism in lieu of its responsibility to provide a free and fair forum for public debate. The lobby behind the same-sex marriage amendment includes elements that are nasty, out of control and indifferent to democratic values.
I admit I almost chickened out of being involved in the campaign. To be truthful, same-sex marriage wouldn't figure in a list of 100,000 matters I might propose as of pressing concern to Irish society now. But do I need this hassle in my life? No. Does my family need it? Emphatically, no. Is anything worth the kind of abuse and disruption of the past 16 months?
Now, there's a different class of question. And the answer - in this context at least - can only be yes. Gradually, as the hurt and confusion percolated through my psyche, it began to occur to me that the consequences of failing to stand against what was happening might be fatal for our freedoms in the most intimate and sacred contexts.
So this is why "this fellow" has, as it were, come out. With Kathy Sinnott and Gerry Fahey, I launched First Families First, to blow the whistle and draw the public's attention to the potentially lethal implications of the amendment.
For the past three weeks, I have been participating in media debates and addressing public meetings. I am so glad I found my bottle. Now that I'm out, I feel free. I still get attacked, but I no longer care - there's too much at stake.
I met a man the other day who confided his belief that, in pushing this amendment, Enda Kenny had provoked in Irish society a "mental civil war", which will have ramifications of their type just as serious as the Civil War of 93 years ago. He may be correct. The stories I've come across of intimidation and hate-mongering are for me unprecedented in over 30 years writing about Irish life and politics. I met men whose daughters begged them not to let anyone know they were thinking of voting No, lest they, the children, be ostracised by their peers.
We in First Families First have had no need of funding, but that's just as well, since the few people who came to us offering small donations were all agitated to ensure that there was no possibility of their gesture being made public. Although the law provides that donors up to a certain limit are entitled to privacy, in all cases we thanked them and declined their offer, since it's no longer possible to guarantee that the law will be either obeyed or enforced. There are countless examples of illegality and blackguardism: the tearing down of No posters, the gloating YouTube video boasting of this usurping of the democratic process, the egg-throwing, the harassing of a hotel in Galway until it cancelled an anti-amendment meeting.
This has been the most comprehensive betrayal of democratic principles by an establishment in living memory. And it is not that most politicians actually care one way or another - many have simply either caved in to the bullying or are playing to the "cool" vote, perhaps thinking that they'll be safely over the line to their pensions before the consequences kick in. But the consequences will come, and sooner rather than later, devastating families and individual citizens in thousands of tragedies played out in the courts, in proceedings in which neither nature nor biology will any longer feature as a criterion of parenthood.
Whereas the scars of this ugly campaign may acquire a superficial healing in time, the deep tissue damage to our most fundamental protections will persist until some saner generation, perhaps chastened by disaster, grows to sense in this Republic. The amendment has been sold through the misuse of words, especially "equality". The Irish Constitution already provides that all citizens should be equal before the law, allowing for different treatment by virtue of difference of capacity and function. But equality has become a blackmail word, which in this revolting campaign has been employed with extreme prejudice to compel people to abandon not just their own most precious rights and protections but also those of their children's children.
One acute difficulty is that the discussion is so surreal that most people are unable to see how serious the danger is, or even get their heads around why we are having this conversation at all. How did a tiny minority manage to impose its will on the entire political establishment, when most causes and grievances don't rate a Dáil question?
We find ourselves asking each other questions that in a million years we'd never have dreamt of wasting a moment on - like, does a child really need his father and mother or might not the schoolmistress and the milkman, or the fireman and the milkman, be just as good? People are dizzy with this because when you try to answer an absurd question you come up only with absurdities.
Same-sex marriage is so radical an idea that it would make for a difficult sell even if the model on offer were free from detrimental consequences and canvassed with sensitivity and discretion as part of a listening process in which the normal checks and balances of democracy were in full working order. Since the opposite is the case here, the results can only be catastrophic. Almost nobody - including many an intimidated nodding Yesser - is ready for what a Yes is likely to mean, so that, in time, the consequences flowing from a Yes would create a climate of antagonism towards gay people far worse than anything conjured up in the lurid imaginations of LGBT lobbyists. A Yes would also be a green light to any group of bullyboys in Irish society with an agenda to peddle. In this campaign, the blueprint has been written, refined and road-tested, setting out how, by threatening, demonising, intimidating, and smearing you can have your way.
There will be other consequences too: a new climate of prohibition concerning certain forms of thought and speech, an Orwellian revisionism directed at texts and records bearing witness to old ideas. And if you think this extreme, ask yourself: who among our political class is likely to resist? The fingers of one hand will prove more than adequate to the task of enumerating them.
There have been a number of recent moments in Irish life when we looked back at calamities of the past - institutional abuse, clerical sex abuse, banking madness - and asked in incredulity: "Did nobody see this disaster coming?" "Why did nobody blow the whistle?"
This, above all, is why I have decided to come out. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that, if there is a Yes vote on Friday, a record of my dissent will be left behind. When posterity looks to see who spoke out when this grotesque attack on human freedoms was being mounted, my name will at least be listed among the whistle-blowers. I do not want my as yet unborn grandchildren to accuse me and to find myself unable to speak with clarity of what I did in the war.