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
Referenda are generally about some issue it is difficult to have an immediate personal connection with, be one a Member of this House or a voter outside it. There have been referenda on very technical legal issues. Most have been about the EU and the size of an institution with which most people have no personal connection. Others are to do with some moot constitutional point. Occasionally, we have had referenda on very emotive issues where set positions were taken and fervently believed in and a very divisive campaign ensued.
This referendum is fundamentally very different because at its heart and at that of the legal process we are initiating this evening are people and the most basic emotion - love. It respects the right of two people to celebrate their love, regardless of gender, law and rules which, as the Minister said, belong to a different tradition and the past. This referendum allows a celebration, expansion and strengthening of marriage as an institution. Those of us who support this Bill are not seeking to diminish marriage. We are seeking to open it up and allow more people be part of it and thus strengthen it. We seek to promote and define commitment and allow more people celebrate that commitment in front of their families, friends and communities in a civil and legal way. We do not seek to diminish anybody else’s standing or marriage or any other version of marriage but to open up civil marriage to all and to give everybody the equality this House is supposed to represent. Since this referendum is fundamentally about people, I ask that we have a campaign that remembers that people are at its centre and that the assertions, claims and charges that will be made over the next 11 weeks or so recognise the fact that we are talking about people. This campaign is not about some anonymous institution in Brussels or the Four Courts or in part of this building. It is not about some innocuous Bill that may or may not have an impact on people. It concerns our friends, families, relations, colleagues and community. Each and every member of our community deserves and is entitled to respect over the coming weeks and beyond.
If, on 22 May, we as a Republic affirm the values of republicanism - namely, liberty, equality and fraternity - which are often lost in this country, where republicanism has a narrower and more defined meaning, it will be a good day. It will be a good day to start the commemoration of 100 years since our Rising. It will be a good day for the men and women who took part in the Rising and took their inspiration from the French republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. We can vote to endorse those values on 22 May. Rather than be distracted by arguments about what type of commemoration there should be, about who should march or who should visit, we can actually live the commemoration through our actions on that date. We can endorse the views and traditions of real republicanism, which are equality and respect.
The Minister is correct to say that there are many people for whom this debate is difficult and who have a natural fear of the debate. They have to be won over, because the bubble that is Leinster House and the bubble that is the Dublin media think this is a done deal and that the campaign is won. It is not. Once we leave this House and the Upper House, we and civil society have to go out and sell the view that this is a good thing and that 22 May can be a good day for the institution of marriage. More important, it can be a good day for a republican and independent Ireland. As the Minister said, we have to use examples of our own marriages and other marriages in our community that are strong, secure and successful and we have to demonstrate that they will not be threatened if we vote "Yes" on 22 May but will actually be enhanced by the ability of more people to marry. We have a difficult record of dealing with church and State in this country. Now we must move on and have a civil debate that puts people at its heart and seeks to affirm commitment and affirm love.
There is a tendency in any referendum to do a number of things. One is exemplified by the old slogan, "If you don't know, vote 'No'". That would be wrong on this occasion, because when people vote "No" they are voting against some of their own friends, their own relations and their own neighbours. They should not think they are making a decision that will not have an impact, because they will affect somebody's life by denying them a basic right. In any referendum at a difficult time in people's lives there is also an inclination to give the Government a kick, but this is not the time to do that either, because in giving the Government a kick one is giving one's brother, sister, friend, neighbour or colleague a kick by denying him or her the basic right of marriage. If people want to give the Government a kick, they should hold their feet until next year. On 22 May they should affirm the ideals of a republic and the ideals of decency and Christianity, which respects other views and celebrates other views. Christianity is supposed to take on board all other beliefs and respect the dignity of the person, and that is what we need to do on 22 May.
That is what we can do, but let us not take it for granted. Let us not assume that when we leave this debate it is a done deal. Let us not make plans to gather in celebration on 23 May, because what we do in the next 11 weeks will dictate where this country is at for many decades and generations to come. On 22 May we can endorse the vision of our forefathers, who laid down their lives for this republic, and we can lay out a path of hope and equality for those who come after us. As people who are entitled to vote, we are in a unique position to be able to honour those who fell for our country and for the right for us to actually have a vote on 22 May.