News Martina Devlin

Thursday 2 October 2014

I don't agree with opponents of same sex marriage but they have a right to be heard

Published 16/08/2014 | 00:00

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Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer hugs former Justice Minister Alan Shatter after a same-sex marriage motion was passed at last year’s Fine Gael Ard Fheis

Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it, as Cole Porter reminds us. They fall in love. And when people are fortunate enough to love someone - and have it reciprocated - sometimes they choose to honour that commitment in public by getting married.

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But wait. The choice of whether or not to be married isn't open to everybody. In Ireland, love is graded. Love between a woman and a man: acceptable. Pass Go and collect your marriage licence. Love between two men, or two women: tolerated. But do not pass Go, don't even think about applying for a marriage licence. Make do with a civil partnership.

That's a form of love judged to be second class, because state recognition of it is second class. So much for treating people with equality under the law.

Next year, Irish citizens will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not we want to continue discriminating against gay people. Or if we prefer to amend the law, with full marriage rights extended to everyone.

It promises to be a tumultuous debate. Volcanic, in some quarters. Anyone who believes the exchange of strong views can be parked until the formal beginning of a referendum campaign is living in a fool's paradise.

Opening shots were fired this week, when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) upheld a complaint that The Mooney Show on RTE radio had breached impartiality during a discussion on same-sex marriage. The ruling provoked a fire storm. Commentary in the aftermath questioned the need to offer alternative viewpoints on every topic - that requirement was repressive and would stifle freedom of speech, some people suggested. Intrigued, I listened back to the programme, expecting to be offended by the BAI's misjudged finger-wagging. In fact, the BAI called it correctly.

A guest on the show was former newsreader Michael Murphy, who spoke eloquently and movingly as a gay man in a civil partnership. Even in 2014, it was courageous of him to share his personal testimony. However, the discussion strayed onto the referendum, and why the law should be changed - with no contrary view advanced either from him, or his fellow guest, Tiernan Brady of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen). Nor did the presenter pick up the slack.

And that wasn't neutral, as the BAI accepted. Let's be clear: dissenters do not have the right to label gays as evil, or sick, or unnatural. Such an approach is offensive, and must not be tolerated. But those who oppose same-sex marriage are entitled to be heard, so long as they are courteous, civilised and avoid name-calling. After all, this referendum seeks to change the law.

The BAI's decision does not represent an attack on the gay and lesbian community, which needs to develop some perspective if it is to mount an effective campaign. I understand it is hurtful to be downgraded. I hope the referendum is passed overwhelmingly, and I intend to use my vote and my voice to that end. But dissent ought not to be silenced. Everyone's vote is equal in next spring's referendum.

Mr Murphy and Mr Brady were entitled to put forward the position that marriage equality is a civil rights issue. But the complainant, from the Family and the Media Association, said the discussion was biased because it afforded no platform to the opposing viewpoint. And it had a point.

If not on the same show, then on a subsequent one, an opportunity to put the counter-argument ought to have been afforded. Opponents say same-sex marriage will diminish the institution of marriage, and represents a threat to the family. I see no evidence to that effect, but we ought to hear them out.

The BAI backed the complaint on the basis that objectivity was compromised because both contributors, and the presenter, expressed views supporting a change in the law. And really, once you listened to the item, it was clear that only one side of a contentious (in some circles) argument had been made. Granted, the discussion did not take place during a referendum campaign. But this is very much a live issue - indeed, volcanic, in some quarters.

The Mooney Show may not be a current affairs programme, but a topical question was ventilated on it and a particular course of action advocated. From now, until votes are cast, programme-makers need to be conscious of balance.

That's their job. Here's ours. Let's bear in mind that same-sex marriage has nothing to do with what happens between the sheets, and everything to do with something that matters a great more: equality.

Irish Independent

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