Sunday 25 September 2016

Are we really ready for same-sex marriage? I'm not so sure

'Soft Yes' doubts over gay marriage referendum risks defeating very welcome proposal, writes Daniel McConnell

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

ADVOCATE: Eamon Gilmore
ADVOCATE: Eamon Gilmore

Those openly opposing the pending same-sex marriage referendum are few and far between.

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Anybody who is anybody seems to be for it.

The Government is for it; Fianna Fail are for it; TV stars are for it; former Presidents are for it; former Supreme Court judges are for it; airline chiefs are for it; big business is for it; the gardai are for it. Even Pat the Baker is for it.

Well, on the last one, I'm not sure if he is or not, but you get my point.

Yet, unlike other straightforward referendum proposals, and despite huge margins in recent opinion polls, there is a lingering doubt as to whether it will pass on May 22.

The most recent Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll showed 66pc of people in favour of same-sex marriage, 21pc against and the remainder undecided. But a deeper examination of the figures showed a proportion of that Yes vote to be 'soft' or not fully convinced as to the merits of the proposal.

The poll also showed voters split almost evenly on the question of whether they were comfortable with gay couples adopting.

The figures showed that 42pc of people said they had no reservations with a gay couple adopting, with 45pc saying they had mild or strong reservations with the idea. There is also recognition that people being polled may be reluctant to reveal their reservations and the Yes vote is over-stated.

There is an acceptance that the 'Shy Tory' syndrome could be at play here, in reference to the 1992 General Election in Britain where polls repeatedly suggested that Neil Kinnock's Labour Party would seize power.

The Government had hoped to park the children and adoption issues with the passage of the Children and Family Relationships Bill, but it is clear there is a risk of contamination when it comes to polling day.

More so, there is a growing unease among Yes campaigners that the soft Yes vote is vulnerable to scaremongering and could fall prey to the old adage of, "If in doubt, leave it out."

So, despite an overwhelming body of support from such leading figures across so many sectors, and with such lingering doubts, one is left asking the question: Is Ireland really ready for same-sex marriage?

The truth is that the greatest threat to the safe passage of the referendum (which I personally support, for the record) is not from the Catholic Church or from the disciples of the Iona Institute.

Their hardline audience is forever shrinking and their utterances play simply to their core faithful.

Rather, the greatest threat to the referendum is the silent swathe of middle-aged mammies and daddies who are genuinely conflicted.

As to the straight question being asked in the referendum, they by and large have no objection to it, but they are far more conflicted when issues such as adoption, surrogacy and children's rights are brought into the equation.

Since The Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognise same-sex marriages as opposed to civil partnerships, 14 other countries have followed suit.

So, were we as a country to pass the referendum, it would put us in a pretty small club and would signal a major advancement in terms of secularism given our deeply conservative recent history.

This was an initiative that has continued despite the departure as Tanaiste of its greatest advocate, Eamon Gilmore.

He drew some criticism for suggesting that same-sex marriage is the most pressing civil rights issue of our generation. Indeed, even Taoiseach Enda Kenny disputed such comments, but Mr Kenny has carried through on his commitment to put the proposal to the country.

But Mr Kenny and many within Fine Gael are visibly out of their comfort zone on this issue, and while such reservations are being suppressed, they add to that sense of lingering doubt that simply can't be shaken.

With three-and-a-half weeks to go, both campaigns are set to ramp up and many people will only begin to engage properly with the meaning of what is being proposed.

The Yes side has benefited from a simple wording and also a key intervention from the Referendum Commission which said the referendum would not in any way change the legal status, meaning or definition of heterosexual marriages.

Such a claim had been made by some members of the No side and had been gaining traction.

Ireland certainly has made significant progress since the dark days of the previous century where it was smothered under the merciless clasp of the Church and its agents of suppression.

But all it will take is for enough doubt to be lodged in the minds of those middle-aged mammies and daddies for this referendum to go down. The final week to ten days of the campaign will be key.

I hope on May 22, this country is able to demonstrate to itself and to the world that we are a truly tolerant and equal society. But, there is a growing sense that while young people and liberal- minded people are willing to accept same-sex marriage and all that goes with it, there are enough people who remain to be convinced.

Sunday Independent

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