Wednesday, 5 May 2004
Family Law: Motion.
Feargal Quinn (Independent)
Every relationship involves giving and taking on the part of both parties. Usually it is love that provides the driving force for this, whether the parties are married or not. As we know, however, love is not enough to make the world go around. When people share their lives, especially when they have children, a cluster of interlocking rights, obligations and special needs arise. It is to provide for these that family law exists. Just as family law is and should be blind to the religion or race of the people involved, it should also be blind to their marital status. I say that as a fan of marriage. It is important that we continue to recognise the institution of marriage in our Constitution. I would have great difficulty, however, with any intention to ignore the problems that are being created due to the changes in society.
Marriage is a great thing, but I do not see it as a reason for depriving people of rights they should have or releasing them from their obligations. Nor should it be a reason for failing to cater to the special needs that arise by virtue of people's commitment to their relationships. Despite what the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Brady, said at the weekend, I do not think marriage as an institution is in any great danger from the changes we need to make. We must be careful and take this into account, of course. The vast majority of our population still gets married and will continue to do so, but it is far better that they should do so out of their own free will rather than because they have been bribed with a set of privileges that only married people can access. In business terms, one bribes people to do something or rewards them for doing it. I would much prefer we did not use bribery. We need to take action in the areas about which Senator Henry has spoken.
More importantly, our feelings about marriage should not be used as an excuse to deny unmarried people in relationships what should by right be theirs. To discriminate generally against people because they are not married is an insult to the institution of marriage and does nothing to promote it. In this country we seem to be particularly slow at getting our act together in such matters. Perhaps this is because of our long Catholic tradition or because most of us are still practising Catholics. We have surely learned, albeit slowly and painfully, to move away from the idea that our laws exist as a kind of policing element for any particular religion. Even if the people were 100% Catholic it would still be desirable for our laws to be totally blind as far as religion is concerned.
Some time back I visited a Muslim country and witnessed the attitude of the law there, which discriminated thoroughly against everyone no matter what religion they were. Our Constitution was written in 1937 in a fair and understandable way. We must recognise that there have been changes and examine this issue together. The amendment says we should review the matter, but no action is suggested. It is important in our increasingly diverse and pluralistic society that we are proactive. This is what should concern us as legislators, whose duty it is to serve the people rather than any particular organisation. I realise, however, that Rome cannot be built in a day, so I support the modest and gradual approach reflected in last week's report from the Law Reform Commission. Now we need to show that we are willing to bring our laws into line with present-day realities and to take the first steps towards doing that. I commend the motion to the House.