Tuesday, 10 March 2015
An Bille um an gCeathrú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Comhionannas Pósta) 2015: An Dara Céim - Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015: Second Stage
"The spirit of self is a great evil; the love of superiority is a great evil. The liberty which I look for is that which would increase the happiness of mankind." So wrote Daniel O’Connell in the late 1790s. He was just 21 years old and about to embark on the career that would make him a national hero and an international champion of the weak and oppressed. Two hundred and forty years ago, the Liberator was born into a country where Catholics did not have the vote, could not own land, had few rights, and could not even sit in Parliament. That all changed in his lifetime. At the time, those who opposed civil rights for Catholics believed fully and sincerely in the justice and rightness of their position. They held that full equality would undermine society and order. They were proven to be wrong.
Throughout history there are numerous examples of good people being on the wrong side of history. We are reluctant to change, and so it is often easier to accept the way things have always been. Why risk what change might bring? Fifty years ago women could not serve on juries in this country and had to resign from the Civil Service when they got married, two things that seem unbelievable today but which were supported at the time by many good and honourable people who were unable to see the damage these policies were causing, or the validity of the arguments on the other side, which they often saw as radical, rather than just modern.
This is a Bill which asks us to act as legislators for the whole country, for future generations, and to do something that will benefit all of society in the long run. This is not a Bill about "gay marriage", it is about "equal marriage". It is not about weakening one of the strongest institutions in society, it is about strengthening it by making it inclusive and for everyone. It is about removing the sense of shame, isolation and humiliation from many who feel excluded. It lets them know that Ireland is a country which believes in equality before the law for all its citizens.
A hundred years since the Rising, it dares us to truly cherish all our children equally and to reaffirm "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts ... oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government which have divided a minority from the majority in the past." This Bill allows allow gay men and women, for the first time, to be equal citizens in their own country. No exceptions; no caveats; no conditions; just equal. This is not an act of generosity to a minority, rather it is an act of leadership by the majority. It is a recognition that the majority does not become superior by making another group feel inferior. It recognises that same-sex relationships are equal to opposite-sex relationships, and by doing so, all are enhanced and neither is diminished.
In this House we have heard strong support from all sides for marriage equality but we must not allow this to be a campaign where we talk to those who are already committed. There are good and honourable people in the country who are unsure about marriage equality. They are not prejudiced. They just have concerns. We should not dismiss or ignore their concerns, but should attempt to answer, address and alleviate them.
People often fear change, which is only natural, and will want to protect existing ways. It does not make them bad people or prejudiced people. It is up to us to convince them that this change is one for the better. It does not seek to transform our society so much as to recognise it as it already is. Perhaps one way is to ask everyone to think of the best marriage they know, the one that is the most loving, the most stable, and the most inspiring, and then ask ourselves a few simple questions. Is that marriage any more likely to break up because two men or two women down the road get married? Did the introduction of divorce really undermine any of those marital relationships or did they survive untouched? Did the end of the marriage bar undermine marriage or did the institution survive intact? Those who speak loudest against marriage equality proclaim that marriage is a fundamental building block of our society, yet they seem to think it is such a fragile institution that it needs to be wrapped in cotton wool, frozen in time and denied to those they do not trust or understand. Instead of being real champions of marriage, they are almost afraid of it because they do not believe it is robust enough to withstand change, evolution and modernity. We believe in marriage as an institution, and so we believe equal marriage makes it stronger and makes society stronger too.
In the 1916 Proclamation the leaders evoked the power of our "dead generations". In this debate let us call upon the new generation, the voters who have grown up in a very different Ireland from the one of the past, to come forward. A whole generation of people believe strongly in marriage equality because they instinctively know that true love between two people is not something to be afraid of; it is something we should embrace as a society and validate by our law. Happiness is not a zero sum game which requires some to be unhappy for others to feel good. We all benefit from increasing the numbers of secure relationships and allowing every loving couple to experience the kind of stable union, comfort and partnership that everyone believes in, regardless of their views on this Bill.
This is not a threat or a challenge to existing marriages in this country. Rather, it recognises that it is precisely because marriage is so important that we want to be able to extend its benefits and protections to others. This Bill is a reaffirmation of the institution of marriage in our society. It is a statement that marriage remains an integral part of our modern and changing society, something so special that we want all our citizens to be able to share in it equally.