Thursday 27 October 2016

The liberal agenda could come unstuck in this profoundly conservative country

Published 09/04/2015 | 02:30

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

Recently, a good friend asked me how I would vote in the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

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I thought the question surprising for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I like to think that my belief in basic equality and my liberal and open-minded demeanour is blatantly obvious for the world to see. I soon discovered the question was less about me and more about her.

Nervous at standing out from the crowd, she was tentatively considering her options and looking for latent approval, I suppose.

It turns out that my friend, who I had considered equally committed to equality and open-mindedness, is having second thoughts about how to vote on this issue. I endeavoured to find out why, in a calm and moderate manner.

What ensued, however, was a heated argument which swung from artificial insemination and newly developed fertilisation techniques - all the way through to the rights of gay people to hold hands in the street.

As we aired our views and deliberated intently, we examined what the post-referendum consequences would be for sisterhood, motherhood and brotherhood ad nauseam. When discussion about mankind in general had been exhausted, we then tumbled upon our own childhoods which were very different. This was obviously a more personal exercise in honesty, and the discussion resulted in even more extremes, including ridiculously sweeping statements like "you will never understand, you don't come from a broken home".

We have been friends for 20 years but it turns out that we don't really know each other as well as we had thought we did, because of this issue of whether people who happen to be gay are still more "them" than "us". That "them" and "us" issue actually cuts to the soul and fundamental beliefs are exposed. However, the worrying question is whether our moral compass on this issue is actually being defined by the cloud of debate surrounding the basic issue of equal rights, rather than same-sex marriage.

Imagine for one second that we were having this debate about any minority group other than gay people. What if we lived in a world where every person who was born gay, was also born with a different skin tone. Should those people be allowed to get married and have children? A debate of that nature would be unacceptable, racist and bigoted. For those of us who believe that sexual orientation is not a choice but an essential part of some people's human nature, then there are no questions of equality, it is only a question of rights.

This question is a moral one which has lasted many ages, and in my view it is not about marriage; it is about whether you believe people choose to be gay or not. If you believe that there is no choice, then there should surely be no questions.

To date, there have been few debates about the right to same sex-marriage which have not spiralled into discussions about family structures. Yes campaigners point out those "unconventional" family structures not only already exist but they are currently compromised by the lack of legislative safeguards for the children who are involved in these situations.

The Government has handled the timing of the introduction of legislation to deal with the anomalies in this very badly. The close proximity of the legislation to the referendum is introducing a myriad of extraneous questions which only serve to confuse and expand the debate about practicalities when voters are still struggling with the basic moral principle.

If any government was ever going to see this referendum passed, then the Children and Family Relationships Bill should have come two years before or two years after a debate about same-sex marriage. Perhaps depending on a younger, liberal vote to turn out is a gamble that will not pay off.

As we trundle like a bulldozer towards an election campaign, the political landscape seems a lot calmer than it did this time last year when we were engulfed in a series of justice-related episodes. Behind the scenes, things are very different. Feverish planning is taking place to ensure nervous candidates and parties are ready for the general election.

Smart planners would simply use this referendum as a dry run for campaign structures in that election. Sadly, smart planning and politics are rarely comfortable bedfellows. Nowadays the likelihood is that the approach will continue to be every man for himself (and 30pc of ladies, of course).

The Children and Family Relationships Bill will soon be signed into law by our president. The next stop on what is an essentially moral debate on equality will begin properly in the weeks ahead, as all sides kick into action on the referendum campaign.

Expect to lose friends and influence few people, because this question is about an individual's belief in the right to equality. It goes deep.

In Ireland, we are still profoundly wedded to conservatism. As polling has already shown, the gap between Yes and No has narrowed and even those people who profess to be liberal and open-minded may come to surprise you.

The cynical among us might suggest that the Government is simply engaged in a box-ticking exercise to a socially progressive agenda to assuage Labour Party types.

Unless civic leaders put their shoulder to the wheel soon, this referendum could yet prove to be a lost opportunity for us to become leaders in terms of equality and social justice, allowing us to finally shed our shackles of conservatism and convention.

Irish Independent

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