Labour's goal is full equality for gay citizens, Gilmore tells symposium

7 May 2009

Speech by Eamon Gilmore TD

For The Labour Party, the question of marriage for lesbian and gay people in Ireland is a question of equal citizenship. It is as simple as that.

The Labour Party has a long and proud history of fighting, and winning, the battle for equality between our citizens. It was Labour which introduced equal pay for men and women. Labour had the courage to stand up for individual freedoms, and to take the State out of citizens' bedrooms. It was Labour which legalised divorce in 1997. And it was Labour which made it legal to buy a packet of condoms.

We have been at the forefront, too, in major developments in the gay rights agenda.

The words "sexual orientation" first appeared on the statute book in incitement to hatred legislation in 1989. Ray Burke, of all people, agreed to Labour and Workers' Party proposals and amended a Government Bill that had been confined to racial hatred.

In 1993, the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition delivered on a Labour manifesto promise to abolish criminal offences relating to homosexual acts.

And Labour's equal status legislation, voted down by Fianna Fáil and the PDs in 1992 when it was an Opposition Bill, became official policy in the Labour-Fianna Fáil Government of the following year and was enacted by the subsequent Rainbow coalition.

Looking around us today, it is hard to imagine that the rights and freedoms Labour fought so hard for, and which we all now take for granted, were resisted every step of the way. The divorce referendum, only 14 years ago, was passed by a mere 9,000 votes out of the 1.6 million cast.

Two lessons can be drawn from these, often bruising, struggles. The first is that if we are committed to the equality and freedom of our neighbour, we will succeed. The second is that it won't be easy.

This is as true for same-sex marriage as it was for those other milestones on the journey towards a fair and equal society.

That there is some considerable resistance to giving legal rights to same-sex partners is clear. The Labour Party introduced its own Civil Unions Bill to the Dáil twice since Fianna Fáil and the Green Party formed a government in 2007, and twice it has been voted down.

The Government has promised to introduce its own legislation on civil unions, but so far it has failed to do so. There is one thing we can be sure of: they have no intention of introducing equal rights for same-sex couples to the extent that they are guaranteed in Labour's proposed legislation.

Our Bill offers same sex couples the greatest measure of equality possible under our constitution. It affords same sex couples access to a status relationship which is similar to marriage in every practical way - including the right to adopt a child. It will provide thousands of our fellow citizens with a vital legal protection, and bring to an end countless forms of discrimination that they encounter in their daily lives.

Is our solution, as manifested in our Bill, a perfect one? To the extent that it stops short of changing the definition of marriage in the Irish Constitution, a move which would require a referendum, some would argue that it is not.

Let me be clear: our goal is full equality for gay citizens. It is a goal which is shared by our friends and allies, who have stood with us when we have fought for equality in the past. We may differ, sometimes, about the best way to reach our common destination, but ultimately we will get there, and celebrate there, together.

The path we have chosen is that of legislation, which gives gay couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, and which could be implemented tomorrow if the political will exists. It is our job - as politicians, activists, friends and citizens - to expand that political will, and to campaign for our cause.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of Irish people have a live-and-let-live approach to their fellow citizens. I do not believe that they are interested in denying same-sex couples the right to take care of a sick partner, inherit the family home or, indeed, to commit to each other for better or worse.

In arguing for a more progressive, tolerant and equal society, we must be sure that we give a voice to this majority.

The Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign demonstrated that there are still deeply reactionary groups in Irish society, albeit on the outer fringes, who will lie and distort to preserve the status quo. Groups who are anti-Europe because the EU has been the most effective modernising force in Irish history, particularly when it comes to women's rights and equality.

It is likely, I believe, that a referendum will be needed to provide for full marriage equality between same sex couples. Labour will, of course, support such a referendum. But we need to learn the lessons of the past.

I believe there were two major differences between the first and second divorce referendum campaigns. Firstly, its supporters were much better prepared the second time around. But, more importantly, by the time of the second referendum, all the relevant legislation was already in place and was being practiced. Marriages were, effectively being brought to an end in our courts in a managed way that dealt with all the issues that arise: property divisions, inheritance, maintenance, custody, access, and so on. All that was left was a decision on one net point: the right to re-marry.

Similarly, imagine a referendum campaign on marriage equality in an Ireland where same-sex couples are already afforded the rights and responsibilities of marriage, as set out in our Civil Unions Bill. Nothing much has changed, except that thousands of our citizens - friends, family, neighbours, strangers - may choose to have their relationships recognised by the State, with all the rights and responsibilities that brings.

To campaign against full marriage equality in that context would effectively be to campaign against what has become the status quo. In short, it would be unthinkable.

In the meantime, there are immediate, unmet needs that should not be postponed until such a referendum is held. Waiting for the best should not be a reason for delay in bringing about the better.

The Government - that is, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party - has said our Bill is unconstitutional because it creates a conjugal status relationship closely aligned to marriage. This, they say, undermines marriage.

That argument might hold water if a same sex union was an alternative to marriage for the same cohort of people. But of course it is not. The Government argument is nonsense. There will be no reduction in numbers entering marriage because of individuals choosing to enter same sex unions instead.

Our Civil Unions Bill is designed to meet the present needs of present day couples. It is based on a full commitment to equality and parity of esteem, and it goes as far as we can go within a constitutional framework that denies full marriage equality.

I strongly believe that just a few short years of such legislation being put into practice will greatly strengthen the support for an amendment to the Constitution. And at that referendum there will be just one, straightforward change: the change of name to marriage.

Labour's living legacy is the modernisation of Ireland, and the liberalisation of its laws. We, and our fellow travellers, need to have faith in our own ability to effect change, to make allies, and to win the moderate majority.

After all, an equal right to marry is not a gay issue - it's a citizenship issue. Equal citizenship is the most fundamental organising principal of our society, and of any functioning democracy.

Equal rights for gay citizens is not a radical agenda. It is just the logical conclusion of believing that, in a republic, all citizens should be treated equally - something that is decidedly a majority opinion.

Of course, tackling fears and prejudice takes time. Equality cannot be imposed exclusively from the top down. A more equal society is created through the actions of the people who make it up, their attitudes and their relationships. There is no substitute for people acting on the principle that one's fellow human being is truly equal.

An example of how insidious prejudice can be is homophobic bullying in our schools. A survey in 2006 found that almost 80 per cent of teachers had witnessed homophobic bullying in their schools, and that almost a third had witnessed such abuse over ten times.

Irish and international evidence shows that young lesbian and gay people are significantly more likely to experience depression, and to consider suicide. Indeed, one can only wonder about the shockingly high levels of young male suicide in Ireland, and how many of those lives have been destroyed by overwhelming insecurity and the terror of rejection by their family and community.

The pervasiveness of homophobic language and bullying among young people tells us how far we have yet to travel before to abuse someone for being gay is simply taboo. But it will happen.

We can effect change through legislation, as Labour has done in the past. This is important, but it is not an end in itself. Equal treatment for gay couples is just one milestone in our endeavour to improve the quality of our citizenship, and our society, for all, regardless of background, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

Labour is the only party in the Dáil whose record demonstrates a tireless, unequivocal commitment to equality. When we are in government again, we will deliver on that commitment. But we will need the support of our fellow citizens, our fellow activists, our fellow travellers who believe in a truly fair and equal society.

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