Go raibh maith agat a Ceann Comhairle,
I welcome the opportunity of speaking here today about an issue of equality that is very important to may thousands of people and their children.
The past twenty years have witnessed immense progress in advancing the equality agenda for the LGBT community. What was once hidden from public view has been brought out of the shadows and rightly openly expressed. Being gay or lesbian no longer has stigma attached and rightly so.
Old prejudices have been systematically combated across a raft of legislative measures. These legal changes have reflected broader fundamental shifts in society as it moves along the path to real equality regardless of sexual orientation.
Much work remains to be done in progressing these matters further so that there can be true equality in Irish society. The right to equality in marriage stands as one of the last remaining challenges to be overcome.
It is worth reflecting upon the steps forward we have taken and the work that remains to be done in achieving same sex marriage rights. I take real pride in the work Fianna Fáil has undertaken in driving on this agenda.
Incitement hatred Act
In 1989, it was Fianna Fáil in government that steered through the Oireachtas the Incitement to Hatred Act which made it an offence to stir up hated against a group or persons on account of a number of specific grounds including sexual orientation.
This principle was subsequently extended into the area of broadcasting to further copper fasten protection against the proliferation of hateful material.
Decriminalisation of Homosexuality, 1993
In 1993, the Fianna Fáil led government with Máire Geoghan Quinn as Minister for Justice, brought forward the seminal Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act that finally brought an end to the unfair criminalisation of homosexual practice. Minister Quinn took the lead in advocating publically across the press and the Oireachtas for a change to the law.
It was worth noting that the legislation was moved forward amidst considerable controversy with a Sunday Press poll in May 1993 indicating that 50% of people were opposed to a change in the law and some conservative groups mounting a vocal opposition to what they described as “teenage buggery”.
We also resisted opposition attempts to set a discriminatory age of consent which ensured effective equality regardless of sexual orientation.
Others cynically played for political points and pressed for an increase in the age of consent to 18 years for homosexuals while the heterosexual age was between 15 -17.
The less party political this debate receives the better. Gay people deserve better than political point scoring.
Employment Equality Act, 1998
The Employment Equality Act, 1998, prohibits discrimination in employment on grounds of sexual orientation followed closely by the groundbreaking Equal Status Act which was initiated by Fianna Fáil, came into effect in October 2000.
The LGBT community rightly enjoy the full protection of a suite of equality legislation. The evolution of policy that led to this legislative protection has taken place in Ireland since the 1980s and Fianna Fáil has played a central role in legislating for these issues. This is upholding the true republican value of equality for all citizens.
Ireland has been at the forefront of countries that protect LGBT people against discrimination.
It has encouraged developments at European level and there are also compatible arrangements in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement ensuring that equality is an issue across the entire island of Ireland.
Civil Partnership Bill, 2010
The next frontier in progressing the equality agenda in the recognition of the legitimacy of loving same sex relationships. The Civil Partnership Bill, introduced by Fianna Fáil in 2010, has had far-reaching consequences for same-sex couples. For the first time in Irish law, gay and lesbian relationships have been given official recognition.
With this new legal status comes a range of rights and responsibilities. These include pension rights, succession rights, maintenance obligations and protections in the event of domestic violence.
The Act also recognises civil partnerships, or their equivalents, from other countries. The Act outlined a cohabitants’ redress scheme, provides for a ‘safety-net’ for financially dependent long-term cohabitants on the end of a relationship.
In a modern society like ours, it would be unacceptable to continue to ignore same-sex relationships. The overriding aim of the Act was to bring about positive changes to same-sex relationships on both a profound and practical level within the current constitutional framework. Over 1,500 partnerships have been formed in a testament to the liberating strength of the bill. Civil partnership was an important milestone in the road towards same sex marriage.
Same Sex Marriage
Same Sex Marriage represents the next fundamental step along the path to genuine equality.
At the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis held in March 2012 our members voted to pass a resolution supporting equal marriage rights. Fianna Fáil is a republican party. It is therefore our policy to build a Republic which is founded on the ideals of the equality and the dignity of every member of the human family.
We stand for an open and inclusive society where the dignity and equality of every person is fully upheld. Our policy of supporting same sex marriage reflects a commitment to providing state recognition and support of monogamous lifelong relationships between adults that forms the central basis of society.
This policy is underpinned by the inalienable principle of equality amongst citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.
Fianna Fáil remains committed to the central role of the family, the institution of marriage and the guiding principle of equality that underpins our position as a republican party. We do not believe that equal marriage rights for all citizens in any way threatens or undermines the strength of the family unit and the institution of marriage.
Providing a legal framework to sustain life long relationships does not weaken society, it strengthens it.
It is important that we draw the distinction between civil and religious marriages and respect the innate right of religious bodies to conduct their ceremonies without undue interference from the state.
This constitutional change refers to civil marriages and will not force any religious organisations into conducting ceremonies that do not follow their faith. This principle of fairness has worked in the UK and other countries.
Moving forward with marriage equality underpins broader shifts in Irish society which opinion polls have indicated are overwhelmingly supportive of the move. It also brings us into line with progressive European countries leading the way in underpinning the legislative agenda.
Ireland can take a stand for enhanced equality by moving forward with this legislation rather than lagging behind other EU states.
I trust that the government will push forward with plans to hold a referendum in 2015 on this issue and furthermore provide legal certainty around adoption issues.
Clarity over the legal rights surrounding children will be vital in giving real effect to the protections afforded in the constitution to the family unit.
Fianna Fáil supports the Conventions recommendation and will actively work towards passing the referendum when the government moves it. It will be a leap forward for the country and a welcome day for the thousands of same sex couples who want to express their love.