Tuesday 25 October 2016

Voters say 'yes', but might say 'no' to another question

There's overwhelming support for gay marriage, but voter concerns about children might muddy the waters

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

76pc is the significant majority in favour of gay marriage
76pc is the significant majority in favour of gay marriage

Irish people are funny. They can be libertarian, contrary, conservative and complicated. Two sets of figures in today's poll reveal these characteristics neatly: 76pc and 45pc.

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The 76pc is the significant majority (excluding don't knows) in favour of gay marriage. That's the libertarian in us. If gay people want to get married, that does no one any harm, so let them have it. Or as one old farmer I know says, thinking of his nephew: "Sure some of them gay fellas are together longer than half the marriages around here."

That's not to say the final poll will be so overwhelming. The number has come down from 80pc and with another six weeks to polling day I'd fully expect it to reduce further, for a number of reasons.

First, our contrary nature may enter the fray. Whatever about which way people intend voting, every single person I talk to is heartily sick of gay marriage. The 'debate' such as it is, has gone on too long and been too one-sided. I've heard several people say they can't wait to vote so they can stop talking about it. They were happy yeses a year ago. Now they're grumpy yeses. I'm absolutely convinced that if the media doesn't lay off with the happy-clappy stories of blissful gay couples and endless columnising (guilty!) that a backlash effect will emerge.

That might manifest itself in a low turnout, but it could turn some of those grumpy yeses into nos. As we've seen in European referendums, there's a rebellious streak in the Irish electorate. Take them for granted, or brow-beat them into anything and they are capable of lashing out. We're in danger of entering the overkill zone.

Another factor which could increase the 'no' vote is that while three quarters of people have said 'yes' when asked if they support gay marriage, you'd want to be certain that's the question they'll answer on polling day. That's why that other number, 45pc, is important. In answer to another question - would you have any reservations about a homosexual couple adopting a child? - that's the number of people who admitted they have reservations of some sort.

Going back to my farmer friend, he's not sure yet if he'll vote 'yes', precisely because of this issue. And here is where the conservative card is played. But, the conservative is about caution, which is very different from being right-wing. It's not that he thinks gay parents would be any worse than straight ones, but he's worried about kids with two Daddies being bullied at school. He knows how vicious and discriminatory society is.

Now, the result of the referendum won't make a blind bit of difference to that problem because gay couples are going ahead and getting kids anyway. In fact, if you're worried about how the children of gay couples will cope in a homophobic society, you should vote 'yes' in order to reinforce the legitimacy of their relationship. But there's no doubt children are the complicating issue and one that needs to be taken seriously. Campaigners had hoped that the Child and Family Relationships Bill, which deals with issues like adoption and assisted reproduction, would be passed long before the referendum, creating clear blue water between the existence of children and the proposal on marriage. But apparently due to Alan Shatter's resignation, that hasn't happened. Now the bill and referendum are juxtaposed.

That's dangerous for the 'yes' side because in recent years the penny has slowly dropped that in the disgraceful absence of any regulation whatsoever, gay and infertile straight couples have been resorting to various methods to create children, which were literally (I get to use the word correctly!) inconceivable some years ago. From anonymous sperm and egg donors to Indian surrogates, children are being brought into the world through a series of highly questionable ethical practices. But out of sympathy for infertile couples, people have been afraid to ask if there is any limit to what is permissible in pursuit of creating a child. Do we really know what goes on in Indian surrogacy clinics and if it's okay that poor Indian women are pressured by their families into bearing children for money?

Our history has provided us with hard lessons here. Adoption can bring great joy, but it has caused some terrible problems from lack of medical histories to the consuming psychological need to know one's identity, not to mention inbreeding. Anyone who wants a reality check on the problems of 'identity denial' needs to talk to Susan Lohan of Adoption Rights Alliance Ireland. She deals with couples who discover they are brother and sister. These are problems we think are consigned to history but are being recreated in front of our eyes through the use of anonymous donors.

The bill going through the Dail deals with some of these problems but it feels like a superficial debate from which ordinary people have been excluded.

Since no one has bothered to ask people how they feel about anonymous fathers being selected from a sperm catalogue in an IVF clinic, they might see polling day as an opportunity to express their worries. I doubt these concerns will be enough to risk the passing of the referendum, but to avoid confusion and bad feeling, campaigners should listen respectfully and explain properly exactly what question is being asked on May 22.

Sunday Independent

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