Belfast Telegraph

Gay marriage referendum: Why I changed my mind - and then changed it back again

Paul Hopkins on why he's seriously conflicted about this Friday's constitutional referendum in the Republic

If I were honest I'd have to say that, up until recently, I did not give much consideration to this Friday's referendum on marriage equality in the Republic, smug in my thinking that it didn't affect me one way or the other.

I had married a woman, many years ago, and we had three wonderful children - and that the marriage did not last the course after 30 years was neither here nor there.

And, of course, I trotted out the well-worn clichés - truths, in fact, but nonetheless clichés. You know the ones - some of my best friends are gay, as are some of my colleagues, my cousin is gay, as is a one-time business partner.

This issue aside, I have no problems with homosexuality.

Indeed, one of my favourite watering holes when based in this newspaper's office for some years was a great little gay bar nearby with fun and friendly staff and clientele and good beer.

Without much thought, if pushed to it, I was going to vote No to allowing the constitution of the Republic make it OK for people of the same sex to partake of the ritual of marriage, a preserve for aeons - long before organised religiosity took a foothold in the affairs of man - of a man and a woman, most often with the view to procreating and bringing new life into the world.

Any constitutional change to that sacredly-held ideal would be anathema to civilised thought. Old-fashioned thinking? Misguided even? Perhaps.

Then, my only daughter, the eldest of my three children, sat me down to try and knock a little sense and perspective into my "antiquated" thinking (her word).

At 33, she is an informed and intelligent young woman whose opinions I respect. Times have changed, she argued. True.

She and the man of her dreams lived together for four years - something unthinkable in the days when her mother and I were courting - before they married two years ago in the presence of a Catholic priest and a congregation of witnesses, so that they wed each other in the 'eyes of God', as well as signing the State's civil registry. A sacred ritual dear to both of them.

Times have, indeed, changed. It was not long ago that to be homosexual was a crime, and even more recent that letters to the hugely popular Gay Byrne daily radio show showed the country hugely opposed to any discussion of homosexuality, let alone talk of "equality".

Would I deny her best friend from university days his right to marry the man of his dreams when they walk down the aisle together next month in Portugal?

Has not everyone the right to happiness, regardless of sexual preference? The future belongs to her and her college friend's generation and it is they who are shaping society's future.

She had a point. Particularly about one's inalienable right to happiness, whatever their sexual orientation.

So I read and listened to those arguing for a Yes vote: let's do the decent thing and say Yes to love; we remember the Ireland of yesterday, the crudeness and the pain and torment suffered by those at the brunt end of such; a Yes victory will not change the supremacy of natural biological law; the strategy of the No camp has been to raise doubts about that which means most to most of us - the welfare of our children.

So, I have taken it all in and informed myself and have found more than a modicum of truth in the argument for a Yes vote and have conceded that some, though not all, of the strategy of the No campaign has tinkered tellingly with truth.

Like a lot of people who, in their dealings with others, are for the most part decent folk, coming to the conclusion I have about whether or not to change the constitution has not been easy. I have tossed and turned and turned again in my mind between voting Yes and voting No.

It is because of my very concerns for the welfare of our children and future children that I am voting No.

I believe there is more to the debate about the right to marriage than just adult equality. Friday's referendum is not a referendum about whether or not we like gay people, or whether or not they should be equal citizens, according to the Irish constitution.

Article 40.1 declares they are already equal citizens. It states that all citizens shall be held equal before the law. We are not being asked to amend Article 40, but rather being asked to amend Article 41, which deals with the family and with marriage.

And we are not being asked whether gay couples should have their relationships recognised by the State. They already do, in civil partnerships.

Admittedly, there are aspects of this legal agreement that need debate and ironing out - let's amend and legislate for these - but gay couples in civil partnerships enjoy the rights that married couples do in terms of legal standing and inheritance and the like.

The constitution of the Republic recognises marriage in the first instance because of its role in connecting children with their biological parents.

The constitution declares the family based on marriage between man and woman as "the natural primary fundamental unit group of society and as a moral institution, possessing inalienable and imprescriptable rights, antecendent and superior to all possible laws". (Article 41.1.1).

And Article 41.3.1 states: "The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack."

Changing the definition of what marriage - and, consequently, family - is will have, I believe, repercussions for children, if not now then some time down the road.

If the Yes vote wins, the State will then (also) "recognise" gay marriage as "the natural primary and fundamental unit of society".

The recent Family and Relationships Bill (F&R Bill) was rushed through the Dail and the Irish Senate ahead of Friday's referendum to clear up any potential contradiction between children and family rights, on the one hand, and marriage rights on the other.

To reiterate: marriage is contained within Article 41 as "the institution upon which the family is founded". Therefore, the right to marry also includes the right to found a family.

For two women marrying, this involves a sperm donor. The F&R Bill sets out a legal framework for this to happen. It means that the child born in this way will be the child of both "intending parents". The male genetic parent will, in the words of the Bill, "not be a parent".

So parenthood has just been redefined. It's a precedent I am not happy about: that the State should use its adoption, or surrogacy, laws to (deliberately or not) leave some children motherless, or fatherless. That cannot be in the best interest of a child. Neither can it be so to use a law to create a child who will be (deliberately or not) deprived of the opportunity to know and be cared for by its own biological parents.

The wording of Friday's referendum - to which the people of the Republic are being asked to vote Yes or No - has been badly thought-out, badly framed, the whole thing rushed, the whole debate sullied by hyperbole and half-truths on both sides.

It really needs to be rethought and duly considered.

I don't want my constitution to deny that it is a good thing for a child to have a mother and have a father.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights proclaims that everybody is equal in dignity and it holds that marriage is a male-female union.

The Irish Constitution talks of "cherishing all the children of the State equally". What the Republic is being asked to vote on this Friday leaves too much of this in a limbo of assumption and contradiction.

I am so in doubt about the amendment protecting the rights and future rights of children.

I am voting No.

Paul Hopkins is a Dublin-based writer and commentator

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