Sunday 23 October 2016

Memo to James Reilly: it's possible to be good and vote 'No'

Published 01/05/2015 | 02:30

James Reilly (Gareth Chaney Collins)
James Reilly (Gareth Chaney Collins)

The Iona Institute, which I founded and head up, currently looms large in the minds of some of our Government ministers. This is because of the marriage referendum coming up on May 22, and because for the last number of years we have been the most high-profile organisation in the country defending the family of mother, father and child based on marriage.

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James Reilly is one minister whose mind has been a bit exercised about us lately.

In a speech on Wednesday night he discussed the ways in which Irish society has 'evolved' and become more 'open-minded'. Voting for same-sex marriage would be an important part of that evolution, he argued.

He described the Iona Institute's previous attitude to Civil Partnerships, and how one of our patrons now points out that they give same-sex couples the right to say 'I do'.

He said the Iona Institute had once described Civil Partnership legislation as "a deeply flawed and poorly thought-out approach to family policy".

Actually, in 2009, we published an alternative to Civil Partnerships that we called 'Domestic Partnerships'.

We believed (and believe) that anyone in a caring, dependent relationship should be entitled to certain legal rights and protections, such as inheritance rights, maintenance and property rights in the event of a break-up, hospital visitation rights and so on.

We believed (and believe) that these should be on offer to gay couples and to (say) two sisters who have been living together and caring for one another all their adult lives.

This, by the way, was also the position of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, if I understood him correctly.

Writing in the foreword to our paper on Domestic Partnerships, then Junior Minister, Dr Martin Mansergh, said: "As I argued in my Irish Times column of 15 May 2004, people who look after each other over a long period, whether they are friends, siblings or sexual partners, deserve more favourable consideration from the State than they receive today, even though this would have important revenue costs, unless made good in some other way.

"The Iona Institute is to be commended for putting forward for public discussion, prior to the drafting of legislation, a detailed alternative model of non-discriminatory domestic partnerships as an alternative to the civil partnerships as proposed by the Law Reform Commission."

So that was our position. In public we concentrated most of our arguments on the lack of any conscience clause for those who didn't believe in Civil Partnerships. Such a clause was sought by the Catholic Church and senior bishops in the Church of Ireland, among other religious leaders. It was refused point-blank.

We were also concerned that Civil Partnerships in the form given would lead to immediate demands for same-sex marriage and therefore to a radical alteration (or undermining) of the proper understanding of marriage. And so it has proven.

I would like to see James Reilly's position 'evolve' as well. What reason can he advance for not giving two elderly sisters living in the same house for decades inheritance rights on a par with a lesbian couple who may only have entered a Civil Partnership recently? Why should the surviving sister pay much more inheritance tax than the surviving Civil Partner?

The word 'prejudice' featured heavily in Dr Reilly's speech. It's an incredibly loaded word and he basically invited his audience to assume that only prejudice could motivate someone to vote 'No' on May 22.

At best, Dr Reilly seemed to imply, the prejudice is unconscious and clouds the thoughts of otherwise good people. He invited those people to travel further down the road of 'tolerance' and 'enlightenment' (not his words).

Actually, the idea that only prejudiced people would vote 'No' can itself be a form of prejudice.

It's a refusal to accept that good people might have good reasons for voting 'No', and are not simply guilty of unconscious prejudice, or worse. It's a refusal to concede that people who are voting 'No' are genuinely concerned that a 'Yes' vote will compromise a child's right to be raised by a mother and a father whenever possible.

Some people don't believe that right exists at any level. Others think the point is irrelevant to the referendum. Others see no special value in a child having the love of a mother and a father. They think mothers and fathers are completely interchangeable and therefore two mothers or two fathers is the same as a mother and a father.

Fine. But to simply assume that believing in the right to a mother and a father is a form of prejudice, as is believing that this right will be compromised by a 'Yes' vote, can itself be a form of prejudice.

I've personally received a lot of emails and messages on social media from 'Yes' voters who seem to be motivated by hatred of religion. That's obviously a form of prejudice. So there is genuine prejudice on both sides.

But it does a huge disservice to public debate and to democracy to simply assume that believing in a given position can only arise from prejudice. However, Dr Reilly's views give us a glimpse into the future. 'No' voters are already under huge moral pressure to keep their views to themselves. They are constantly being told how prejudiced or bigoted they are.

How much worse will it get if the referendum passes? The entire 'Yes' side has refused to countenance a conscience clause for those who don't want to facilitate same-sex weddings because of their belief that marriage by definition is the union of a man and a woman.

Such people for the most part will be religious believers. They are already being depicted as the moral equivalents of racists for believing in the family of man, woman and child based on marriage.

If the whole apparatus of the State becomes wedded (no pun intended) to the new view of marriage and to the idea that opposition to same-sex marriage is, by definition, prejudice, that's going to potentially place many people on the sharp end of the law.

We are entering a very strange place as a society when we pat ourselves on the back for loudly denouncing people who believe in the special value of motherhood and fatherhood and for making a connection between this and the institution of marriage.

Irish Independent

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