Sunday 25 September 2016

May 22 vote asks us to embrace the notion all citizens are equal

No campaign's arguments are bogus, and our choice in the poll will tell us much about ourselves and our society, says Eamon Gilmore

Eamon Gilmore

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Eamon Gilmore
Eamon Gilmore

The campaign for marriage equality has been like none other I can remember. For the most part, it has been good-natured and free from rancour. It has energised thousands of people, many of them young, some of them gay, to become involved in the political process for the first time

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I know that it has been difficult for some gay people who have chosen to go out and campaign. It is never easy to knock on the door of a complete stranger and ask for their vote. To do so when it entails declaring your sexuality is an act of particular courage.

It shows the importance gay people attach to our vote on Friday week that so many have chosen to engage in this way. It tells us that, important as the issue of marriage equality is, the vote is actually about even more than that. It is about the concept of equality itself.

I know that many gay people, including those who have no immediate interest in getting married, will feel rejected and excluded if the Irish people vote to deny marriage equality. It is just over 20 years since we decriminalised homosexuality in Ireland. No wonder then, that many gay people still find it difficult to come out, still feel that they are not fully accepted as equal citizens.

We can go a long way to change all that if we vote to embrace equality. In fact, the campaign itself has had a cathartic effect. The very fact that the issue is being openly discussed has in itself made all of us - or at least most of us - more comfortable in our diversity.

For decades, the gay community in Ireland lived in the shadows; many gay people lived unhappy lives, often in denial. We have the chance to open a whole new chapter for them after May 22.

The arguments put forward by the opponents to the amendment are curious, to say the least. They are arguments that few of us have ever heard before. In all likelihood, they are arguments that we will never hear again.

The reason for that is simple enough. The arguments put forward by the No side are theoretical at best, contrived and bogus at worst.

Take the argument about adoption by gay couples. This issue is sensitive and hugely important to the adults and children involved. The truth is that for good or ill, adoption in Ireland is largely a thing of the past.

There are now fewer than 30 domestic adoptions in Ireland every year that do not involve step parents. At a conservative estimate, there are at least 200,000 gay people. The reality is that the number of gay couples who could ever aspire to adopt a child in Ireland is minuscule. In any event, adoption does not depend on marital status.

The argument about surrogacy is equally spurious. Of course, it is important to discuss surrogacy. Of course, it is important that we legislate to control surrogacy and to give protection to those concerned. But this discussion needs to take place whether or not we agree to marriage equality on May 22. Any suggestion that there is a connection between the referendum and the debate about surrogacy is misleading.

Finally, there is the argument about every child's entitlement to a father and a mother. On the face of it, this seems a straightforward proposition. But what does it say to all those children raised and living in the non-traditional family unit?

I am a product of such a family. My father died when I was 14 months old. All the adult figures in my childhood were female; my mother, grandmother and cousin. The absence of a father figure did nothing to hamper the quality of my upbringing, my education, my career prospects, or my future.

So why are we hearing these curious arguments from the No campaign? Why would they want to deny other Irish people access to marriage?

The concept of equality is the centre of the discussion which we are now having. Anything else is tangential.

I am proud that the Labour Party has been to the fore in bringing this issue to the Irish people. We were the first party to propose civil unions in 2006. We had an explicit commitment to a referendum on marriage equality in our manifesto at the last General Election. We ensured that the issue was considered - and subsequently overwhelmingly endorsed - by the Constitutional Convention in 2013. We then sought to put the issue to the people during the lifetime of this Government.

In doing so, we always recognised that our partners in Government, Fine Gael, had to come with us, and they have. I'm glad of that, and I welcome the fact that the referendum campaign is being jointly led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton.

The question we must ask ourselves before we vote on Friday week is whether we agree that two people who love each other should be permitted to express their commitment to each other in civil marriage.

On one level, you could say that those of us who are not gay are being asked to make a gesture of acceptance - of generosity, if you will - to our fellow citizens who are gay. After all, the marital status of heterosexual couples will be in no way affected by what happens in the referendum.

But actually, we are being asked to do more than that. We are being asked to make a statement about ourselves as a country. We are being asked to restate and embrace one of the basic principles of a republic, the notion that all of our citizens are equal under the law and are entitled to equality of esteem from their fellow citizens.

Because these citizens are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our neighbours and friends. We hold it in our hands to reject them or embrace them. How we exercise that choice will tell us a lot about ourselves and the society we have created.

Eamon Gilmore is a former Tanaiste and a Labour TD for Dun Laoghaire

Sunday Independent

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