Just two months before a May 22nd ‘Marriage Equality’ referendum, many commentators predict Ireland will become the first country in the world to insert a constitutional amendment permitting civil marriage between two people of the same gender.
A distinctive feature of Irish democracy has been frequent recourse to constitutional referendums. May’s referendum will be the 35th time voters have been asked to amend the constitution in less than 80 years. The origin of this state of affairs may partly be traced to the unhappy split in the 1920s over a treaty with Britain, which led to a civil war after it was narrowly passed by a parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Éamon de Valera, who framed the 1937 constitution, felt strongly that future decisions on fundamental questions required more than a simple parliamentary majority.
Opinion polls currently predict that 77% of voters will back the constitutional redefinition of marriage while 22% of people say they will vote ‘no’. However, opinion polls on constitutional questions are notoriously unreliable in Ireland.
In 2013, for example, a referendum on children’s rights – which enshrined individual rights for minors in the constitution and granted the state greater powers to intervene in families – was just narrowly passed. An opinion poll had said just 4% of voters would oppose the motion, on polling day a significant 42% of citizens decided to vote against the children’s rights amendment.
There’s also the fact that many of those saying they are inclined to vote in favor of same-sex marriage have reservations.
According to John Downing, a political commentator and former government adviser, much of the apparent support for same-sex marriage in opinion polls is soft and many voters are not entirely convinced.
Only 59% of those who said they will vote ‘yes’ said they strongly held that opinion. The other 18% were more tentative about their voting intention. The pollsters also asked further questions about matters related to the issue of gay marriage. One-third of those prepared to vote ‘yes’ said they had reservations about gay couples adopting children.
Those who said they would vote ‘yes’ were further asked if they had reservations about the concept of the same-sex marriage referendum. In this case, 42% said they had reservations about the idea of the referendum.
When the question is a simple yes/no on whether the voter intends to support same-sex marriage the results are strongly in favor of a ‘yes’. However, when a series of more detailed questions are put into the mix, this number falls eventually to 44%.
Confused wording, last-minute changes
The Government’s ‘yes’ campaign has also been criticized by legal experts after Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was forced to make a last-minute change to the proposed wording after fears the move could inadvertently ban traditional marriage.
While English is the language of parliamentary debates and Irish is spoken by only a handful of citizens, Irish remains the official language. A week ago, the Government announced that the Irish-language version had been changed because of a possibility that a marriage between a heterosexual couple might be found unconstitutional.
The English version states: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
The original Irish translation was: “Féadfaidh beirt, cibé acu is fir nó mnÁ iad, conradh a dhéanamh i leith pósadh de réir dlí.” Directly translated back into English it says: “A couple may, whether they are men or women, make a contract of marriage in accordance with law.”
According to constitutional experts, the use of the plural created a difficulty in that one interpretation of the wording was that it distinguished only between female couples and male couples, but not between same-sex and heterosexual couples.
Bishops: “Reflect before you change it”
Opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage has come mostly from the Catholic Church since all political parties in parliament are supportive of the measure.
In a pastoral letter released late last year after the referendum was announced, the hierarchy warned that presenting same sex-partnerships as equivalent to marriage would be akin to saying that the union of man and woman is no longer the foundation of society.
The bishops said the promotion of the unique nature of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is a matter of justice.
“The Catholic Church, with other Christians and those of no particular religious view, regard the family based on marriage between a woman and a man as the single most important institution in any society,” the statement said.
“To seek to re-define the nature of marriage would be to undermine it as the fundamental building block of our society,” the bishops said.
The bishops said the “Church seeks with others to reaffirm the rational basis for holding that marriage should be reserved for the unique and complementary relationship between a woman and a man from which the generation and upbringing of children is uniquely possible.”
However, following a general meeting in early March, the bishops stopped short of calling on Catholics to reject the proposal. In a March 10th statement, the bishops said that “we respect the views of people who think differently to us, trusting that our sincerely held views, grounded in faith, will also be heard and respected.”
“We cannot support an amendment to the Constitution which redefines marriage and effectively places the union of two men, or two women, on a par with the marriage relationship between a husband and wife which is open to the procreation of children,” the hierarchy stated before adding: “we encourage everyone to think about these issues and to vote on May 22nd.
“The effects of this proposed amendment will be far-reaching for this and for future generations. We say to all voters: Marriage is important – Reflect before you change it,” the statement said.
What about the children?
David Quinn is the most prominent voice speaking against the constitutional change. A journalist and Director of The Iona Institute think-tank which promotes marriage, Mr Quinn says the bishops really want people to reflect on whether marriage should be about the rights of adults or the rights of children.
The referendum, he says, is “a debate about the meaning of marriage, about the needs of children, and about whether we believe men and women and the sexual and emotional unions they form are sufficiently different to recognize in the distinct social institution we call marriage”.
According to Mr Quinn, “people often ask themselves, ‘what’s the harm’ if two men or two women are allowed to marry each other. But the very fact that the main supporters of same-sex marriage can no longer see that marriage is fundamentally a child-centred institution, can no longer see that motherhood and fatherhood are of special value, and now see marriage as an adult-centred institution alone, shows the harm that is done”.
Supporters of same-sex marriage are keen to keep the issue of children separate insisting that the referendum is just about love. However, in tandem with the constitutional change, the Government is also pushing through a radical piece of legislation known as the Children and Family Relationships Bill.
According to Prof. Ray Kinsella, who heads the campaign group Mothers and Fathers Matter, there are “some positive aspects” to the Children and Family Relationships Bill. For example, Prof. Kinsella says, “it provides improved guardianship rights for grandparents, who play a heroic role in the care and welfare of children in contemporary society. It begins the process of addressing the injustices, across a range of issues, experienced by fathers separated from their children. It deals with issues of custody and access including enforcement procedures in the context of breakdown. Each of these, and other measures, are important”.
However, Prof. Kinsella believes the Government should accept some major amendments. “In particular, it should retain the existing preference for motherhood and fatherhood in our laws on adoption, IVF and other forms of assisted human reproduction. It contains measures which, if enacted, would be enormously damaging to the welfare of children,” according to Prof. Kinsella.
If passed, Mothers and Fathers Matter argues the legislation would do the following:
• Systematically remove the preference for motherhood and fatherhood in the law on adoption, IVF and AHR.
• Sever the connection between a child and his/her natural parents when donor eggs and/or sperm are used.
• Facilitate the ‘commodification’ of children through facilitating a ‘market’ in donor eggs/sperm.
Prof. Kinsella believes that “there is an intrinsic value in all loving relationships. But they are not all equivalent. The term ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ – ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ – have very specific meanings in our laws and Constitution, and for excellent reasons.
“The Bill effectively extends these same terms to almost every set of arrangements among consenting adults. They are not the same, still less so in the extent to which they vindicate the needs and rights of children,” he insists.
Lack of balance in debate
Dr Martin Mansergh is a former minister and part of the government which introduced civil partnership legislation for same-sex couples in 2010. He believes that there has been little balance in the debate on same-sex marriage and many Irish people have not heard opposing arguments.
“There is seldom acknowledgement coming from most advocates of change that what they seek goes against religious teachings and beliefs about the good of society,” according to Dr Mansergh. However, he insists that “those who hold to the Christian ideal of marriage need to explain better how it will be undermined if civil partners are allowed to marry.”
“Despite past intolerance, courtesy, forbearance and a willingness to listen should be shown on all sides. It will be for many conscientious voters who take part a difficult and finely balanced decision,” he believes.
The stakes are high: a constitutional redefinition of marriage and a radical shift in the understanding of family. However, Dr Mansergh sees the campaign for same-sex marriage in a wider context. Ireland’s constitution was amended in 1983 to enshrine the right-to-life of the unborn child. “No one should be under any illusions. The [same-sex marriage] referendum is a dry run for a sequel, the repeal of the eighth pro-life amendment, if politicians need no longer fear religious factors weighing on voters”.
If Dr Mansergh is correct, the stakes are indeed extremely high and May’s referendum is simply part of a process that would see liberal reformers push for wider access to abortion in Ireland.
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