Tuesday 25 April 2017

My message is clear - follow your thoughts or feelings, but don't vote from a position of fear

Three children admire the giant ‘Yes’ sign in Cavan Market Square yesterday as part of the ‘Yes’ vote campaign ‘Get it Across the Line’
Three children admire the giant ‘Yes’ sign in Cavan Market Square yesterday as part of the ‘Yes’ vote campaign ‘Get it Across the Line’

Leo Varadkar

Three-hundred years ago Catholics in this country could marry. But it was against the law to bring up their children in their own faith if they married a Protestant. Until the 1970s, women had to give up their jobs and careers once they got married.

That was marriage of a kind, but it wasn't equal marriage. Thankfully, the legal definition of marriage has evolved. It has become more equal to the benefit of society and families.

Twenty years ago there was another significant evolution, when Ireland voted to allow people to divorce and re-marry in a civil ceremony.

Opponents claimed that marriage would be redefined, families would break up and there would be moral apocalypse. Just like today, they used emotive slogans involving children, such as: 'Hello divorce, bye bye daddy'. They included some prominent people on the 'No' side today. In an article published on November 20, 1995, a young Rónán Mullen said divorce was "unjust" and would lead to an increase in "social problems", hurting children and causing "psychological problems". Others argued that churches would be forced to remarry divorced people against their own religious beliefs. These fears proved unfounded, life went on and thousands of people got a second chance at happiness.

Five years ago the Dáil and Seanad passed an act to allow for civil partnership. Once again, opponents warned of appalling consequences.

David Quinn claimed it would lead to a series of legal disputes, with photographers and parish halls being sued because they objected for reasons of conscience.

But civil partnership was brought into being. In a bizarre twist it has now been adopted by the 'No' camp, which claims that civil partnerships are a good thing - so good that some of them now argue it should also receive constitutional protection, just so long as it's not called marriage.

This week our country is being asked to make another big decision and to vote for equal marriage. There are many good people who are thinking of voting 'No'. This article is a direct appeal to them.

My message is clear: vote whatever way your own thoughts and feelings dictate. Never feel like you have to explain your decision, or apologise for it. That's your right. It's fundamental to our Republic and our democracy.

But whichever way you vote - 'Yes' or 'No' - don't vote from a position of fear. The waters have been repeatedly muddied with irrelevant and false arguments which have nothing whatsoever to do with the core issue: marriage equality.

My appeal is: vote on the issue before you. Marriage equality will allow two people to enter a civil contract and have their loving relationship recognised by the State, no matter their gender. It will afford them the same rights, responsibilities and protections as any other married couple. No more. No less.

So we need to stick to the facts: adoption law will stay the same, no matter what happens in the referendum. The best interests of the child remain paramount thanks to the Children's Amendment which you - the Irish people - voted into the Constitution two years ago. That is a fact and has been confirmed by the independent agency responsible for the area, the Adoption Authority.

This referendum has nothing to do with surrogacy - which, by the way, is currently legal, occurs very rarely and is used overwhelmingly by heterosexual couples. The independent Referendum Commission has confirmed that.

These issues are not before the electorate. They are separate to the referendum and serve only to confuse a straightforward proposition - that everyone should be treated equally.

We have heard a lot about protecting children in this debate. Children are indeed an important part of this debate. This referendum is about ensuring that all the children of the nation have the same rights to a happy, married future to the person that they love. And it's about respecting all Irish families, whether raised with love by a single parent, unmarried couple or another non-traditional kind of family.

All things being equal, being a good parent depends on one's parenting skills and capacity for love. It has nothing to do with gender, marital status or sexual orientation. We know this because all around us we see single people, widows, widowers, unmarried couples, adoptive parents, and couples who needed help getting pregnant, who are doing a great job in raising their children.

A 'Yes' vote is supported by most of the key groups that look out for and work with vulnerable children, such as Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance, and youth organisations such as the National Youth Council of Ireland.

To those many people of faith in our society I would make one other point: this referendum does not seek to redefine the Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other religious understanding of marriage, or their rules on marriage. This will - as it should and must - remain a matter exclusively for those religions to decide.

There are reasons to be inspired by this referendum. Tens of thousands of young people have registered to vote because this issue means so much for them and their friends. Regardless of their own sexual orientation, they want to live in a society where love is love, and we are all equal. This issue affects their friends, their sisters and brothers, their colleges and their workplaces.

Their optimism and passion has shone out across this campaign. It's been exhilarating and gives me enormous hope for the future of our country. Whatever the result of Friday's vote, I hope these young people remain active citizens politically, and continue to campaign for a better Ireland.

On Friday we have an opportunity to make marriage equal for all our citizens. We can strengthen marriage by extending it to all living couples and send a message to every member of the LGBT community, that we will accept and respect them, and treat them as equals, no matter who they love.

It strengthens our families, because it confirms that marriage is so important that we want all our citizens to share in its benefits. It removes a badge of inferiority from an entire generation, and brings us hope of a better, kinder, more open and more equal Ireland.

On May 22, let's not vote from a position of fear. Let's vote from a position of hope for liberty, equality and above all love.

Leo Varadkar is Minister for Health and a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West

Irish Independent

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