Monday 22 January 2018

The marriage referendum

At the start of the campaign, the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, came out in public as a gay man
At the start of the campaign, the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, came out in public as a gay man


This week citizens will vote Yes or No to a proposal to include a new clause about marriage in the Constitution. The new clause provides that two people may marry each other, regardless of their sex. The Marriage Referendum debate has been divisive, as with other referendums related to social issues.

Neither the Yes or No sides can claim to have remained above what has been, at times, an unpleasant debate. Yet the campaign has also been marked by moments of great personal courage and conviction. In such moments, the substance of the issue before the people has been illuminated in its simplicity.

At the start of the campaign, the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, came out in public as a gay man. Former Minister for Defence Pat Carey, an older man of another generation, also spoke publicly about his sexuality. Former President Mary McAleese, who has urged a Yes, has said the referendum is "about Ireland's children, gay children". Mrs McAleese, a canon lawyer and committed Catholic, has also said passing the referendum would help dismantle the "architecture of homophobia" in the country.

The accusation of "homophobia", highlighted early in the campaign, has given rise to the most vitriolic exchanges. As a result, for the most part, the early weeks of the debate regrettably became mired in a degree fear and of recrimination, which has proved to be counter-productive. The No side has taken exception to the term "homophobia" and has made a determined case on issues it believes are central to the decision that citizens will take on Friday.

That said, Mrs McAleese was correct to point out that the architecture of homophobia still exists to an extent, and needs to be not dismantled, but entirely shattered. It is to be hoped, indeed expected, that the referendum campaign has gone all of the way towards doing that. Those gay citizens who have recounted heartfelt personal testimonies, who have contributed so positively to the debate, and have made such an impression, deserve nothing less.

However, the arguments of many of those minded to vote No has also proved relevant, particularly in the campaign's final weeks. As a result, the debate has highlighted many genuinely-held concerns related to adoption, guardianship, custody and the maintenance of children. The Government, through the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, has dealt with parentage in the cases of donor-assisted births, but not with surrogacy. It is a matter of some regret that the Government did not legislate on the difficult issue of surrogacy before the referendum campaign got under way. Had the legislature as a whole faced this issue, it would have eased the genuinely-held concerns of those citizens minded to vote No. That said, the issue of surrogacy runs parallel to the main point, as it relates to all citizens, not just those who happen to be gay.

The main point is that tens of thousands of citizens require equality with their fellow citizens of the State. No campaigners believe that there will be unintended consequences to changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage. But there are always consequences to changing the law. Fear of consequences is not an excuse for doing nothing.

Today's Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll shows one-in-four have yet to make up their minds.

The poll indicates that the result of the referendum will be determined by voter turnout on Friday.

It is essential that those entitled to vote do so and are absolutely certain of the reason behind their decision.

Sunday Independent

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