Thursday 19 September 2019

Kenny faces revolt over gay marriage referendum

Fine Gael backbenchers warn that voters want focus kept on economy

CONSCIENCE: Lucinda Creighton
CONSCIENCE: Lucinda Creighton

JOhn Drennan and Fionnan Sheahan

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is facing a revolt within the Fine Gael backbenches over plans to hold a gay marriage referendum. But the objections predominantly centre on referendum fatigue rather than conservative objections to same-sex marriage.

The Cabinet will discuss next week whether to hold a referendum on gay marriage. Mr Kenny is expected to agree to Labour Party demands for a referendum in the lifetime of the Government.

But several Fine Gael TDs, a mix of both liberals and conservatives, told the Sunday Independent the public don't want any more referendums.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore is pushing for a gay marriage referendum in autumn 2014 or in spring 2015. Among ministers, there are worries about running another referendum.

A Fine Gael minister noted the people had "given us a kick up the backside in two referendums, so we won't be hurrying back for a third one".

A Labour minister also expressed concern that "there is a possibility, even if the opinion polls say that 99 per cent of the people support it, that a referendum will be lost; we have plenty of history there".

A number of rural TDs, such as John O'Mahony from Mayo and Tony McLoughlin from Sligo-North Leitrim, are believed to have "concerns" about recognising same-sex marriage.

Following the fractious debate on abortion and the failed Seanad referendum, Fine Gael backbenchers say voters want the focus firmly to be kept on the economy. Numerous Fine Gael TDs also privately expressed reservations about the referendum.

"The whole constitutional convention and gay marriage is a ball of smoke. No one gives a rattling about this," one said.

Another source said the issue was not like abortion as "that was a fundamental issue, a pledge – no one has been speaking about this".

Concerns were also expressed within Fine Gael that any referendum might be lost. One of the younger party TDs told the Sunday Independent: "I know of no young TD who is opposed to this referendum but this could easily be lost. We've had five referenda already. The voters are saying that's enough, go off and do your job. If we come back with what looks like a sideshow, they could turn on it or not turn out."

"Most Fine Gael TDs simply don't want to get involved, they have no feelings on it one way or another, but there is the concern they will stir up their conservative votes," another party source said.

"What is leaking out from the Cabinet is that they have had enough of referenda too. They're trying to avoid it as well; the line from Cabinet is another referendum could well be lost."

Labour TD Kevin Humphreys said the main problem with Fine Gael is not that the party is opposed to gay marriage "but that they are referendum fatigued".

In an indication of possible future tensions between the parties on the issue, Mr Humphreys also warned: "I want this dealt with in the current term of government; it shouldn't be left over."

Sources within Labour said the party did recognise the economy was the issue. "But we are also committed to gay marriage, whether or not there are votes in it for us," one source said.

Billy Timmins said the Reform Alliance had a policy of a free vote on matters of conscience, so there was no single line on the issue.

Mr Timmins commended Mr Kenny for "learning from his mistakes". He warned though that whilst "gay marriage is not something we speak about daily in the hills of Wicklow, if there was a referendum, it could be beaten. A lot of people are browned off with the same agenda being pushed by the same liberal voices."

Lucinda Creighton, though, said: "There is no whip; this is a matter of personal conscience."

Another Fine Gael source, who is close to the Reform Alliance, warned: "They would be politically unwise to raise any red flags on this. It would be bad enough if they were seen as the PD Lite party, but if they were seen as Pro Life Lite, they would be badly pigeonholed."

Speculation is also rife that Mr Kenny, whose position on gay marriage is believed to be at best ambiguous, is looking for a way out of holding such a referendum.

"Enda himself is not very easy with the gay marriage thing. There is a sense abroad that he was kind of hoping the Seanad thing would put the tin hat on having any referenda and in particular on gay marriage for some time," a source said.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section