Friday 26 December 2014

'We just want to be recognised as a couple - the same as anyone else'

Together for 11 years, Fiona Clarke and Sheila King are one couple who would love to be able to get hitched, reports Anna Murphy

Fiona Clarke and her partner Sheila King with their baby Keelin, aged 18 months
Fiona Clarke and her partner Sheila King with their baby Keelin, aged 18 months

With divorce and cohabiting both on the increase, it seems that the majority of Irish people aren't all that bothered about marriage. But there is one vocal minority for whom marriage is still something to get excited about: those who aren't allowed to marry.

Fiona Clarke and Sheila King are one such couple. They've been together for 11 years and are parenting a child together.

Privately, they have made a life-long commitment to each other, but it is not something that is recognised by society.

"Despite our commitment to each other, our relationship isn't recognised as much as everyone else's," says Fiona. "Even when it comes to little things, like an application form for a bank, we have to put ourselves down as single because there's no legal status to say we are anything else. We do feel we've missed out on celebrating our relationship as well; on having it publicly recognised. We just want to be recognised as a couple -- the same as anyone else."

Arguments like this have already won the day in several countries where gay marriage is now legal, starting with the Netherlands, which introduced same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, same-sex marriage has also been legalised in Belgium, Canada, Norway, South Africa and Spain, along with two states in America.

For years, the Irish gay and lesbian community has been lobbying for the right to marry, and earlier this year the Government went some way towards meeting their demands.

The Government's planned civil partnership bill means that gay and lesbian couples will be able to register their relationships with the State for the first time and avail of greater protection in areas such as pensions, inheritance and tax.

While much of the proposed legislation is being welcomed by the gay community, they do point out that it is still falls short of giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

"The proposed bill will resolve many of the pressing concerns for lesbian and gay couples -- concerns such as immigration, home ownership and succession rights, and that's very significant," says Brian Sheehan, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).

"It will also give an element of status and value to lesbian and gay couples for the first time. But civil partnership isn't marriage, and the right to marry is still an outstanding issue."

While the civil partnership bill has received broad acceptance from almost all quarters of Irish society, this outstanding issue of same-sex marriage is proving to be more contentious.

The Iona Institute is an Irish organisation that seeks to promote marriage and religious practice. Its director David Quinn argues that it is not discriminatory to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

"Same-sex relationships cannot produce children, and this is why it is not discrimination to treat heterosexual relationships differently from homosexual ones. They are treated differently because they are different.

"It is the children sexual relationships produce, as distinct from sexual relationships as such, that has always made such relationships a special interest of society. It is sound, rational public policy for the Government to strongly favour marriage in its current form. It is also sound policy to give other forms of relationships certain protections, but it makes no sense at all to make any of those other forms of relationship almost equivalent to marriage. To do so is a triumph of tolerance over reason."

"There is a total lack of legal rights for same-sex parents and it is a really critical issue at the moment," says Brian Sheehan of GLEN. "We believe there are mechanisms for establishing a legal connection between both same-sex parents and their child without extinguishing the rights of biological parents -- this can be done by extending guardianship, for example, to include another parent. There is currently no provision for a person who may have been involved in parenting a child from birth."

While Sheila welcomes other aspects of the bill, she is deeply disappointed that it doesn't address parenting issues.

"Other elements of the bill are fantastic, but there's no point in leaving children out of it," says Sheila.

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