Tuesday 12 November 2019

Many a pink slip lies waiting for Coalition on gay marriage vote

Danger is that the Referendum will be about the Government rather than the issue at hand

After the last wallop: Enda Kenny speaks to the media about the failure of the referendum to abolish the Seanad at Dublin Castle in 2013. Photo: Tony Gavin
After the last wallop: Enda Kenny speaks to the media about the failure of the referendum to abolish the Seanad at Dublin Castle in 2013. Photo: Tony Gavin

John Drennan

On the outside the concept that "marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex" looks like the simplest, most harmless of sentences.

There are, however, no danger-free sentences in Irish politics. And that is particularly the case where you are dealing with the uneasy territories of personal morality. The instinctive aversion Irish politicians have to the whole morality thing may explain why the Gay Marriage Referendum has remained lurking below the political surface for so long.

The Irish politician instinctively believes a moral referendum, even when backed by 90pc of the public, will always be accompanied by fear, terror and loathing.

From the moment Leo Varadkar declared he is a gay man (you could have knocked us over with a dandelion spore) the fin had breached the surface.

The rest of the referendum shark, meanwhile, surfaced in the wake of the promise that the Children and Family Relationships Bill, which will deal with such tender issues as gay adoption, will be shortly published.

As minds focus ever more sharply on the arrival of yet another referendum on moral issues - and wouldn't it be nice if we might have a year free of one? - to date, the approach by the Coalition has consisted of the usual paradoxical mix of overly complacent nervousness.

In fairness, a certain degree of complacency in the Coalition's approach is understandable.

Two of Paddy's most defining characteristics are the herd instinct and the desire for respectability in the company of his superiors.

Paddy is all too aware that taking a position to the right of Putin's Russia on the gay marriage thing would not enhance his respectability on the European diplomatic circuit.

And Paddy is also enough of a peasant to realise the pink pound is not something to be sneezed at, particularly now that the age of the Tiger has gone.

The soul of the Coalition has also been eased by the practical reality that all of the parties are on board when it comes to the Gay Marriage Referendum.

Even the Sinn Fein Scientologists - who are normally out mopping up the contrarian 'Paddy is against everything vote' - are signed up.

Some wise souls continue, however, to be uneasy. All-party demarches have not always enjoyed happy endings.

Paddy you see, is a suspicious chap whose intuitive response when politicians agree is to suspect a plan is afoot to take something off him.

Within Leinster House the prayerful hope is that Paddy is a civilised fellow now and that this should surely mean when it comes to gay people and wedding rings we are in 'job done' country.

The problem with such hopeful aspirations is that there is nothing so politically dangerous or harder to secure for Irish governments than the passing of a referendum.

One would have thought it would not have been an excessive task to secure the Dail Inquiries Referendum, which aimed to give our brave politicians the opportunity to put a posse of errant bankers under the cosh.

The most coherent opposition came from seven retired AGs, the existence and names of whom came as a surprise to most of the voters.

However, despite an all- party consensus (yet again!) on the issue, that clever fish Paddy swerved away from this constitutional burnt offering with a disdainful swish of his tail.

And looking at the Banking Inquiry, one would have to say he was right.

Unsurprisingly the Government also thought when it came to a referendum to abolish 60 deadbeat politicians in the dusty old Seanad, which would also save the Exchequer a few bob, that the Coalition was once again in 'winner all right' country.

In that regard, when it came to the poor, dusty, old senators such was the weakness of their position the Government remained ahead until the last hours.

As we know, that ended with a pallid-faced Enda talking about how a new, more humble Coalition would be learning to behave with a greater degree of humility after the wallop it received from the public.

That went well, didn't it?

One of the problems with referenda is that our confused intelligentsia tends to think they are about the issues at hand. In fact, referenda, unless conducted under the threat of immediate ejection from the European Union, are all about whether you are for or against the Government.

The plus side for the Coalition on this particular issue is that at least the sort of property issues that bedevilled the first divorce referendum and almost sank the second do not appear to be applicable to this one . . . yet.

However, despite all the high talk and fine sentiments, the hidden Moby Dick in this referendum is whether prejudice might raise its well disguised head and disgrace us all.

Paddy, in public at least, is always prepared to smile at gay people, particularly if they are of the pantomime, non-combatant, chaste variety.

However, in private - and he is no more different than the French or Americans on this - his theories on allowing gay people adopt children are somewhat less progressive.

And they are unlikely to be softened too much if a haranguing band of gay advocacy harridans race into the fray.

Though all moral referenda are the political equivalent of tweaking a tiger's tail, the Coalition also faces one other perennial problem.

The nature of Paddy's attitude to referenda is one of: "Damn the contents and the words, this is about my view of them fellows in Leinster House."

The implicit status of a referendum as a vote of confidence in the Government means defeats are hugely damaging. There is nothing more damaging to the morale and reputation of a government than the loss of a referendum.

Many would argue that Brian Cowen never fully recovered his confidence after the first Lisbon vote.

It will come as no consolation to the gay community if Paddy says: "Nothing personal we just don't like Enda." It will come as even less of a consolation to the Government.

In the case of a Coalition already running short on confidence, the instability that could follow a loss over the gay thing is hard to measure.

It would hardly enhance the lifetime of this administration, or more importantly still its Dear Leader, if Enda finds himself on the loser's rostrum for the upcoming Referendum.

For now, despite the concerns expressed by figures such as Aodhan O'Riordan, support for the referendum continues to ride high in the polls. But if you are looking for a case study in how such affairs can go, the Coalition would do well to note we are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the seminal divorce referendum.

The progressives started that one well ahead too.

Indeed at one point support was as high as 72pc.

Then, alas, the iconic 'Hello Divorce . . . Bye, Bye, Daddy' poster ushered in a contest of such intensity by the close the only thing that saved the pro-divorce side was the bit of rain in the West and the interventions of John Bruton and Micheal Noonan.

In a scenario such as this, for all the talk of Leo, when it comes to winning over Middle Ireland, Enda and Michael may yet have to spend a few more nights in PantiBar before the year is out.

The even worse news for Leo is that he may have to join the Dear Leader and Jerry Buttimer there.

Sunday Independent

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