Thursday 27 October 2016

Mary Kenny: summing up May 22

Reflections on the same-sex marriage referendum as a moment in our history

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

It's exactly three months since the same-sex marriage referendum, and a book will shortly be published about the 'Yes' side's successful campaign. We shall see whether this will explain and enlighten, or re-arouse, contentious feelings about the events of May 22.

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Time lends perspective to all events. There certainly were cheerful aspects to the 'Yes' campaign. Lots of young people working overseas came home to vote, and then to celebrate the outcome joyously. As David Norris said afterwards, it was just grand to see a big crowd of people outside Dublin Castle being happy.

That was a great advantage for the 'Yes' side. It always seems more positive, more optimistic and more generous to vote 'Yes' than to vote 'No'.

Anecdotally, I found among friends and acquaintances that people voted 'Yes' for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most strikingly, there was the family vote, of which Mary McAleese was a living emblem: there were mothers, aunts, grandmothers - and male relatives, too - who felt that it was imparting a point of dignity and equal citizenship to their sons, daughters, or other family members.

And a moral theologian, Dr Vincent Twomey had a point when he said that many people just wanted to be kind.

A friend of mine - a sincere Catholic, though not inclined to get involved in controversial questions - voted 'Yes' because, as she exclaimed: "Look, people feel that the Catholic church has just got a lot of things wrong in the past."

Then I heard some old school pals talk about the passing of the 'Yes' vote as a celebration of love. This is what I call The Beatles school of political philosophy: "All You Need is Love." The sunny uplands of belief in humanity.

Those who voted 'No' among my own circle of friends were less likely to be outspoken about it (leaving aside those actively engaged in the campaign).

A long-time friend in the arts world came out with a passionate critique. "I believe in Ying and Yang - the balance of male and female is what keeps the world on its axis. No, I don't agree with same-sex marriage, even though I adore my gay friends."

In Ballinasloe, Co Galway, a relative simply lamented: "Oh, what is to become of Ireland? Where are we going altogether?"

In an eloquent address given to the Pauline Society (an ecumenical group) the writer Bruce Arnold clearly stated why he believed that same-sex wedlock breached the "unique and precious nature of marriage", which is rooted in the Darwinian instinct to procreate. "All life depends on this primal expression of life's purpose."

No law can change the fact that for 200,000 years every human being was born of the union of man and woman, which civilisation has codified as marriage.

The outcome of the referendum has also been challenged in the courts, when Gerry Walshe, of Lisdeen, Co Clare, and Maurice J Lyons, of Callan, Co Kilkenny brought petitions last month. Mr Walshe contended that millions of Euro had been provided to support the 'Yes' vote which skewed the public outcome, and politicised the Garda.

He also objected to An Post issuing a same-sex St Valentine's Day stamp as being a "subliminal message" for the 'Yes' side. Mr Lyons alleged that the same-sex amendment was fundamentally in conflict with the Irish constitution.

The judges dismissed both plaintiffs and the way was cleared to implement the law next month.

The money question is a significant one, however. It was obvious from the enormous numbers of 'Yes' posters throughout the country that there were large funds available for this referendum. The Phoenix magazine claimed that up to $20 million came from the US to support 'Yes'. Perhaps the forthcoming book, authored by Noel Whelan, Grainne Healy and Brian Sheahan, will disclose what sums were involved.

As the referendum becomes a moment in history, it will recede and change. We can never predict how things will turn out in the future, as almost nothing does turn out as predicted.

Perhaps May 22 will be seen as a moment when marriage itself changed. And the basis of this change is contraception. Marriage just isn't seen as a fertility rite any more, as it has been throughout time.

Perhaps same-sex marriage will just become another everyday fact of life that society takes for granted. Or perhaps problems will arise: with the expanding trade in surrogate parenthood; with challenges to equality in a number of areas, including sex education.

'Yes' may seem kinder than 'No': but life never was all plain sailing.


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