Belfast Telegraph

At least we were able to have a civilised debate about gay marriage

By Mary Kenny

I could have been counted as one of the 50,000 Irish exiles coming home to vote in the marriage referendum last Friday: except that, as usual at the weekend, the Aer Lingus flight was delayed, and the ballot had closed by the time I got into Dublin. So, I was spared an inward tussle with my conscience in the voting booth. On the one hand, the pleas registered by so many families to be kind to their gay sons and daughters were hugely compelling. Why rain on their parade?

On the other hand, I really do believe that, in the words of Dame Joan Collins: "Marriage is for babies." (She added, more acidly: "And I mean that in both senses of the word.") The main reason many people of my generation got married - myself included - is that they were pregnant at the time.

In our offspring's generation, the 30-somethings often seem to tie the knot after having a baby, so that the dear little tot can attend her parents' nuptials. I notice that it's often after the birth of one baby, and when the second is on its way, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell: "To have one child out of wedlock may be understandable: to have two looks like carelessness."

And, while it turned out to be a landslide for 'Yes', still, more than a third of voters had their doubts, and registered a 'No'. On the whole, though, the marriage equality referendum campaign was a notable success as a civic conversation in the Republic.

It is terrific to involve so many citizens - and particularly so many young people - in a political, and perhaps even philosophical, discussion.

Some political experts opined that gay marriage could just as easily have been legislated through the Dail, as has happened elsewhere: but that would have taken the fun out of the fight and, anyway, the way that legislation can be whipped through the Dail by governments with little sense of a conscience vote is seldom edifying.

No: referendums are great because they engage the people. That's a victory for direct democracy. Was the debate robust? Sometimes it was, especially on Twitter, some of whose tweets have come to resemble the spiteful and anonymous poison-pen letters which often feature in the stories of Agatha Christie.

(When the commentator David Quinn made a graceful concession of defeat on Saturday, congratulating the 'Yes' side on its win, he was met with a volley of mean-spirited tweeting abuse.)

Yet, in the public realm itself, I thought the debate was intelligent, probing, and stimulating. Even Miss Panti Bliss - aka Rory O'Neill - said that he thought "the discourse was civil"; he reported that French media congratulated Ireland for the standards of civility.

A historic analysis of this same-sex marriage campaign will, in the fullness of time, be fascinating. Some of the geographical voting patterns were predictable - Dublin South-East always votes a liberal ticket on everything: Roscommon-Leitrim, Mayo and Donegal are usually more inclined towards traditional values.

There were other contours which will be fruitful to examine: the Catholic Church didn't take a very high profile - it had to state its position, but didn't do so vehemently, and some priests and nuns dissented.

Yet there was some ecumenical support, with Church of Ireland and evangelical Protestants urging a 'No' vote (including the only woman Church of Ireland Bishop); Irish Muslims also spoke out for traditional marriage.

The most amusing aspect, for me, was observing old Lefties, who themselves wouldn't touch wedlock with a barge-pole (how well I remember those conversations in the 1970s when the de rigeur Leftie position was that marriage was a bourgeois repressive institution which Engels had proved was merely a vehicle for the transmission of capitalist property) suddenly telling us that marriage was the measure of all good.

Where is Simone de Beauvoir now, with her insistence that marriage itself is the mortal foe of existential autonomy? Let it be noted in the canons of progressive thought, De Beauvoir has been overtaken by the former Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, with his pronunciamento that "equal marriage is the civil rights movement of this generation".

The historian will also have some questions to ask about the degree of overseas funding for the Yes campaigners. Sure, charitable funds are nowadays globalised, but when an alleged €17m (£12m) of donations help to alter a country's constitution, there must be some disquiet.

The arguments are over now and I hope the resolution brings a sense of acceptance and inclusion. And don't forget the wedding industry: it may expect a nice boost in business from the pink euro.

Belfast Telegraph


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