Ceann Comhairle, Ireland has travelled a long road to reach this point today where legislation can be introduced to allow for a referendum on same sex marriage. As a country which is proud to call itself a Republic, this legislation represents another step forward for equality in Ireland.
Fianna Fáil supports this Bill allowing for the Marriage Equality Referendum to take place on 22nd May 2015. This referendum simply proposes to add to the Constitution a declaration that “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.
Irish Language Issue
Following a meeting with the Minister for Justice and Equality this afternoon, I understand that the Irish language version of this text must now be changed due to an uncertainty surrounding the wording of the first official language’s version. While I welcome the clarity that this will bring and the fact that the Minister was willing to acknowledge the possible uncertainty and act on that, I believe this is a very unfortunate incident. For a proposed constitutional amendment, the failure to present a water tight amendment is sloppy. It is not professional and it is disappointing. If it was not for the eminent journalist Bruce Arnold, his writings and his raising this matter with my office and that of the Fianna Fáil Party Leader, this issue might not have been addressed. Nonetheless, my Party will fully support the amendments which will be put at Committee Stage to correct and clarify the First Official Language version of this text.
Fianna Fáil Position
For my Party, the upcoming referendum is a question of equality – whether we as a society believe that those in gay relationships should be afforded the same security and respect as those in heterosexual relationships. Our answer to that question is yes; that all our citizens must be equal before the law. At my Party’s Ard-Fheis held in March 2012 our members debated and then voted to pass a resolution supporting equal marriage rights. The Party position is that we support that most basic Republican proposition – the entitlement to equality on the part of every Irish citizen.
It is important to note today that Fianna Fáil has played a leading role in legislating for key issues in the LGBT community guided by the fundamental principle of equality amongst citizens. From the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1993 to the Civil Partnership Act of 2010, it was a Fianna Fáil led government that led the legislative change. This legislation is a natural outcome of the years of progress which have been made thus far. I would like to commend the Government and the Minister for finally bring this matter to this House and I hope that the unity of purpose we see in Dáil Éireann today will be reflected in the campaign to bring about a “Yes” vote on May 22nd.
Although this legislation is welcomed by the vast majority of the elected members of this House, it is important not to take the people’s choice in this referendum for granted. There are serious challenges out there, as there always are in referendums, in convincing 50% plus one to back this proposal. The polls tell us this referendum is safe but we must not take victory in this campaign for granted.
One of the first matters which must be clarified is what this referendum is and is not about. This referendum is about allowing a couple of the same sex declare their love and commit to spending the rest of their time together in a civil marriage. This referendum is not about adoption. This referendum is not about surrogacy. This referendum is not about other family relationships in law. These issues are being dealt with by the Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015 which is currently passing through the Oireachtas. The referendum will simply ask whether two adults, regardless of their gender should be able have a civil marriage.
It is vital that these facts are communicated to the citizens of this country in an effective and simply manner. In that regard I hope that the Referendum Commission established for this referendum is given the necessary resources and communicative skills to properly engage with the public.
The “No” side in this referendum campaign will thrive on misinformation and scaremongering. It is important to point out that we must respect alternative views in this referendum but we must seek to outline the facts as they are also. We must be clear that civil marriage is a legally binding contract which is regulated and recognised by the State. The proposed amendment deals with civil marriage rather than marriage through a religious ceremony. Civil marriage is protected by but not defined in the Constitution. This proposed constitutional change will not force religions of any kind to carry out marriage ceremonies for same sex couples. This is a vital distinction which must be made during the campaign.
Another significant challenge in this referendum campaign will be voter turnout. In this regard, the Friday voting is welcome as it will give students an opportunity to travel home to vote, however, there is important work to be done to ensure that people are aware of the date of the referendum well in advance; that a register to vote campaign be carried out as part of the referendum campaign and that polling booths are open for a significant period of time into the evening.
Wording of Referendum
Looking at the specific constitutional amendment, I welcome the simple approach taken by the Minister which will involve the insertion of an extra section into Article 41 of the Constitution. The section to be Article 41.4, coming at the end of the provisions on marriage of that Article makes sense. The fact that no change is proposed to the existing constitutional provisions on marriage is also welcome and reaffirms the importance this state puts on the family unit overall. In fact, if anything, this referendum shows the strength of the institution of marriage into the 21st century. It is a welcome development that people are seeking to broaden the ability of our people to enter marriage.
As the Minister has outlined, if the wording and the amended Irish version of the amendment is approved by the people, the establishment of the right of two persons to marry without distinction as to their sex implies a corresponding obligation and requirement on the state to respect and vindicate that right in its legislation. Therefore, it would not be open to the state to maintain in being legislation which prohibits the marriage of same-sex couples.
Looking at developments across the world, as of 1 January 2015, 17 countries (Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and Uruguay) and certain sub-national jurisdictions (parts of Mexico and most states of the United States) around the world allow same-sex couples to marry. Ireland’s referendum vote is significant as it is the first time any country has held a referendum to permit marriage equality.
There is significant variation across the EU on marriage equality legislation. 10 EU countries permit marriage equality: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (same-sex marriage is legal in the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland).
Spain became the first predominantly Roman Catholic country to allow same-sex marriage in 2005 when they amended their civil code despite significant opposition from various sectors of society. Seven EU countries – Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Ireland and Slovenia – have legislated for civil partnerships, while 11 countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – forbid same sex unions.
In general, the past several years have seen great progress in the development of anti-discriminatory laws for LGBT citizens across Europe. There is a notable east-west divide on the subject of same-sex marriage. Generally speaking, same-sex marriage is more widely accepted in Western Europe than in Central and Eastern Europe and candidate countries. Recent developments reflect this: some Western European Member States have made proposals towards, or brought into existence, legislation legalising same-sex marriage while some Central European countries have actually made moves in the opposite direction.
Ireland can be proud of our record thus far in seeking legislative change and particularly in bringing this matter before the people. Although we are not outliers in the provision of same sex marriage we are confirming our country’s status of a tolerant, open and inclusive place where difference does not mean division or diversity.
I will conclude this speech by stating my Party’s full support for this legislation which will be amended in Committee Stage and for the subsequent referendum. We will be campaigning strongly for the passing of this referendum by the People of Ireland. The work must begin now to win this campaign. We cannot take anything for granted. We must campaign to win and win hard. I hope all of my colleagues here will join with me in committing to running a positive, energetic and informative campaign.