Marriage Referendum 

Did you ever see those simulation games they use for training police officers in firearms? There’s a realistic urban setting of crowded buildings in which bad guys are hiding. Images of people pop up and you have a split second to decide before you shoot – is that a bad guy with a gun or a kid with a lollipop? A crazed terrorist in an explosive vest or a pregnant woman?  Give that test to the No campaign in the marriage equality referendum and they just go Blam! Blam! Blam! They want to shoot their bad guys – gay men and lesbians – but they end up blasting away at everybody else as well. Kill them all and let God sort them out.

 The big problem for the No campaign is that it can’t say what it actually thinks. The core of that campaign is made up of conservative Christians who sincerely believe that gay men and lesbians should never, ever have sex. This view seems to me to border on the blasphemous, since it suggests that God is a sadist who created people with sexual desires that cannot, under any circumstances, be fulfilled. If you hold to it, though, same-sex marriage is repellent because it gives social recognition to the idea that a man having sex with a man and a woman having sex with a woman can be normal and moral human acts.

 But as a political argument, ‘Keep your drawers on and pray’ doesn’t cut it. You have to rationalize your distaste by coming up with some general principle that takes the bare look off mere revulsion.  And this is where the No campaign has come to grief. For the general principle it has come up with is one that manages to insult, not just gay men and lesbians, but huge numbers of straight people as well. That principle is that the Irish constitution must recognise only those marriages (and hence only those families) that are, in the words of the Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, “the union between a man and a woman which is open to life” (i.e. open to the conception of a child).

 I am married to a woman – full marks there. But I had a vasectomy 25 years ago, so our ‘union’ has not been ‘open to life’ for a quarter of a century. We’re not a proper family. My late mother-in-law married again (after the death of her first husband) when she was in her sixties. Her new husband was a delightful man and they were enormously happy together. But they apparently weren’t a family either because God in his wisdom invented the menopause and she was not ‘open to life’. On the other hand, my lovely young niece has two gorgeous little daughters who, apart from everything else, brightened up my mother’s last years with the joy of new life. But, sorry, she’s not married so she and her babies and her boyfriend are not a family either.

This is the problem with the No campaign. In order to get to the tree it wants to chop down, it has to lay waste to a whole forest. In order to find an apparent principle on which it can reasonably deny equality to gay men and lesbians, it has to tell huge numbers of other people that their relationships are just not  up to scratch. It has set a gold standard for constitutional approval of a family relationship  – a man who is not sterile having licensed sex with a woman who is still fertile, with neither of them using contraceptives. (Otherwise their pleasures would not be “open to life”.) It hits the target all right – gay men and lesbians in same-sex couplings don’t meet this standard. But it’s not an arrow, it’s a multibore  shotgun. It hits people who were not in its sights – at least not for now. Any married woman who is using contraceptives or who cannot conceive is not really a proper married woman. Any man who is using contraceptives or who is infertile or who is married to such a woman is not a proper married man. Any single parent with his or her kids is not a family. 

“This is the problem with the No campaign. In order to get to the tree it wants to chop down, it has to lay waste to a whole forest.”

Rather amusingly, of course, there is one category of people whose marriages are saved by this definition – divorcees. Divorce, for the same people who are campaigning against same-sex marriage, used to be the abomination that was going to radically redefine marriage and have every fat middle-aged husband cavorting off into the sunset with a young floozy. But apparently, it’s okay now – at least up to a point. If you’re divorced and remarried and still fertile and not using contraceptives, you are now among the elect type A family of man and woman open to conception every time you have sex.

 As a campaign strategy, telling straight people that their relationships are illegitimate is, shall we say, brave. But for most actual couples in Ireland, all of us fallen people whose families fall short of a narrow ideal, it has turned a Yes vote from an act of altruism to one of plain self-interest.  

When I wed in 1983

When I wed in 1983, I was thrilled to be with my wife but not really proud to be married. There were too many shameful things about Irish marriage. As a man, I was, I hope, an equal partner to my wife. But as a husband, I was a sanctioned tyrant. For the first seven years of my marriage I had a legal right to rape my wife — marital rape was not outlawed in Ireland until 1990. For the first three years of my marriage, if I decided to leave my wife and move to England, she, though living in Ireland, was deemed to be legally domiciled in England. She had no say in the matter — as her husband’s dependent, her legal status was a mere adjunct of mine. In the year I got married, 1983, there was an ongoing campaign to change the law to give each spouse an equal right to the family home and its contents. Alan Dukes, who was then minister for justice, promised such legislation in April 1983 but nothing happened until 1989. Until three years before I got married, my wife’s income from her job would have been automatically treated under Irish tax law as my “extra” income. And of course, for the first 12 years of my marriage, that marriage was indissoluble. Whatever happened to our relationship, even if we were legally separated and lived apart for decades, neither of us could ever marry again.

“As a man, I was, I hope, an equal partner to my wife. But as a husband, I was a sanctioned tyrant.”

All of these things changed and those changes profoundly altered the nature of the institution my wife and I had joined in 1983. It is worth remembering that the things that were changed were ancient, hallowed traditions, sanctioned by time and religion and social practice. My right to rape my wife was part of common law — it had long seemed perfectly obvious and “natural” that the question of consent to sex simply didn’t arise in a marriage. (In many parts of the world, indeed, this still seems “natural”.) The idea that a wife was not a legally or economically separate person but a mere adjunct to her husband had very deep roots. Within my lifetime, even minimal changes to this idea were bitterly opposed. In 1965, for example, when Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan introduced the Succession Act to give a widow the right to inherit at least a third of her husband’s property, Fine Gael (including its liberal wing under Declan Costello) fought and voted against it. The Incorporated Law Society was strongly against the change. In 1986, Haughey, who was no stranger to political fights, said that this was the toughest battle he’d ever been in. 

The thing about all of these changes is that they had a vastly bigger impact on mainstream marriage than anything that might conceivably happen as a result of Friday’s referendum on marriage equality. The nature of the marriage I entered into in 1983 was altered radically and retrospectively over the next 12 years. And altered, moreover, in a way that really did upend thousands of years of legal and religious traditions and that went against what many people still thought of as the natural order of things. In terms both of its legal definition and of its social meaning, the marriage I entered into in 1983 is scarcely recognisable from the one I’m (happily) still in now. By contrast, extending the right to marry to same-sex couples doesn’t change my marriage at all in legal or constitutional terms. It just makes me happier to be married because it makes marriage a lovelier thing.  

In my adult lifetime, contrary to the No campaign’s image of an unchanging institution, Irish marriage has undergone revolutionary change. Almost all of those changes were opposed by conservatives as threats to marriage. The biggest change of all, divorce, was, we were told, an apocalyptic event. After the very narrow acceptance of divorce in the 1995 referendum, the Vatican described the outcome as having fatally undermined the family, which had lost “one of its foundation stones, namely the unity and indissolubility of marriage”. This is turn threatened “the stability, the well-being and harmony of society”. Conservative lawyers argued, in the same terms we’ve heard in recent weeks, that divorce would completely destroy the existing constitutional protection for the family. Funny that the same people now argue that the constitutional protection for the family remains intact after all — but that of course it will now be destroyed if marriage is extended to same-sex couples.

Irish marriage has already changed in far more fundamental ways than is now being proposed. And those changes haven’t destroyed it. They’ve purified it by rooting it, not in systematic discrimination against women, but in the love between equal people. They have transformed marriage from an instrument of domination, oppression and inequality to a free partnership of people who want to share their lives and to live in a republic that recognises the dignity of their choice. We have almost completed that wonderful, joyous transformation. There is just one more step to be taken, before we can all celebrate marriage for the civilised, life-affirming institution it can and will be. 

The overwhelming victory for the Yes side in the marriage equality referendum is not as good as it looks. It’s much better.

It looks extraordinary — little Ireland becoming the first country in the world to support same sex marriage by direct popular vote. But actually it’s about the ordinary. Ireland has redefined what it means go be an ordinary human being. We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that “ordinary” is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life.

It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what ‘we’ extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them’. It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us’. The resounding Yes is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind. It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us — our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.

“It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration.”

 It looks like a victory for articulacy. This was indeed a superb civic campaign. And it was marked by the riveting eloquence of so many people, of Una Mullally and Colm O’Gorman, of Mary McAleese and Noel Whelan, of Ursula Halligan and Colm Toibin, of Averil Power and Aodhan O Riordan and of so many others who spoke their hearts and their minds on the airwaves and the doorsteps. The Yes side did not rise to provocations and insults, it rose above them. Many people sacrificed their privacy and exposed their most intimate selves to the possibility of public rejection. Their courage and dignity made the difference.

Even so, this is not a victory for articulate statement. Deep down, it’s a victory for halting, fretful speech. How? Because what actually changed Ireland over the last two decades is hundreds of thousands of painful, stammered conversations that began with the dreaded words “I have something to tell you…” It’s all those moments of coming out around kitchen tables, tentative words punctuated by sobs and sighs, by cold silences and fearful hesitations. Those awkward, unhappy, often unfinished conversations are where the truths articulated so eloquently in the campaign were first uttered. And it was through them that gay men and lesbians became Us, our children, our families. 

It looks like a victory for Liberal Ireland over Conservative Ireland. But it’s much more significant than that. It’s the end of that whole, sterile, useless, unproductive division. There is no longer a Liberal Ireland and a Conservative Ireland. The cleavage between rural and urban, tradition and modernity that has shaped so many of the debates of the last four decades has been repaired. This is a truly national moment — as joyful in Bundoran as it is Ballymun, in Castlerea as it is in Cobh. Instead of Liberal Ireland and Conservative Ireland we have a decent, democratic Ireland.

 It looks like LGBT people finally coming out of the closet. But actually it’s more than that: it’s Ireland coming out to itself. We had a furtive, anxious hidden self of optimism and decency, a self long clouded by hypocrisy and abstraction and held in check by fear. On Friday, this Ireland stopped being afraid of itself. The No campaign was all about fear — the fear that change could have only one vehicle (the handcart) and one destination (hell). And this time, it didn’t work. Paranoia and pessimism lost out big time to the confident, hopeful, self-belief that Irish people have hidden from themselves for too long. 

 It looks like a victory for global cosmopolitanism. But actually it’s a victory for intimacy. It was intimacy that made Ireland such a horrible place for gay and lesbian people, for all those whose difference would be marked and spied on and gossiped about. But intimacy is a tide that is just as powerful when it turns the other way. Once LGBT people did begin to come out, they became known. Irish people like what they know. They like the idea of “home”. On Friday, the wonderful spectacle of people coming back to vote, embodied for all of us that sense of home as place where the heart is — the strong, beating heart of human connection.

Finally, it looks like a defeat for religious conservatives. But nobody has been defeated. Nobody has been diminished. Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality — even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.

By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility. It has shown all of us that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. We now have to figure out how to rise to that daunting and exhilarating challenge.