Time has come for move on same-sex marriage
1 July 2012
Speaking at the Tom Johnson Summer School
It is a pleasure once more to give this lecture in Honour of Jim Kemmy. A man who was a giant of the Labour movement, and whose devotion to learning is a model for us all.
The Tom Johnson School is an opportunity for all of us to take a step back from the day to day concerns of politics, and to take both a broader and a longer view, of where we are - as a country, and as a party. To reflect on where our political project now stands, and our priorities for the future.
As I have said elsewhere, I am particularly anxious that we use the centenary of the party, not just to look back with pride on what we have achieved, but also to look forward. To focus once again on the core values of our movement, and to renew our political purpose. To dedicate ourselves once more to furthering the core goals of our movement, within the context in which we find ourselves.
Let us be clear that we do so from a position of strength. Labour in its 100th year, is the strongest it has ever been. We have the largest number of elected representatives that we have ever had, at all levels of Government. And we have the platform of Government, both to progress our agenda, and to build ourselves as a national political force.
We are part of a Government whose principle objective is economic recovery - dealing with the worst crisis in the history of the State - and we will not be deflected from that task. That brings its own challenges, and we have a job to do, to take on our political opponents. But those are tasks I am happy to confront. I am confident in our record, and in our capacity to build a new prosperity for our people.
That capacity has been significantly enhanced by the agreement, in principle, to break the link between bank debt and national debt secured by the Government in Brussels on Thursday. Remember, it was Labour, alone, which stood against shackling the private debt of the banks to the sovereign in the first place. And it was Labour which first committed itself to renegotiating that debt burden. When others said it couldn't be done, Labour disagreed. And, in Government, through sheer grit, and a determination to put - and keep - Ireland's interests on the table, we have been proven right.
We have some road left to travel on that deal, and to close the hole in our public finances, but there is no doubt that, this weekend, the future for Ireland looks brighter.
While the economic challenge that still remains may, at times, seem all consuming, we cannot ignore other agendas. Irish society cannot be put into suspended animation, while the economic crisis is addressed. Our country is moving on. It is changing and developing, and new challenges are emerging. The modernisation of Ireland is continuing, and we, who have always been at the forefront of progressive change in Ireland, must once again play our part. Provoking change; leading change; being change.
The economic legacy of the boom years is all around us - painfully so. But so too is the evidence of fundamental social change.
Today, 17 per cent of the population were born outside of Ireland. 84 per cent of people still identify as Roman Catholic, but the number of people describing themselves as having no religion is now the second largest group in the State, and increased by 45 per cent since the last Census. The status of institutions of all kinds, which once shaped and ordered the lives of Ireland's people, has diminished. Faith and belief are now far more personal matters, and the traditional relationship between Church and State has altered immensely. The Ireland that Labour once had to work so hard to open up and liberalise, has changed beyond recognition.
Sometimes it seems like the social transformation of Ireland happened in the space of a single generation. But the very pace of change presents Irish society, and the State in particular, with many challenges. Challenges to which we must respond in a principled, fair, compassionate and understanding manner.
I am delighted that Donald Sassoon, a great historian of socialism, is with us here this weekend. It is always important, to remind ourselves of, and to interrogate, the intellectual and political roots of our movement. Socialism, social democracy, and liberalism have their origins in the same Enlightenment ideals. While as social democrats we sometimes part company from the European liberal tradition on matters of economics, and in particular on the freedom of markets, we have always been of similar mind on matters of personal freedom. Freedom has always been a catch-cry of our movement. Liberty has always been central to our political project.
And it is freedom, or liberty, that must once again inform the way in which we confront the great social changes of our times. For Labour, achieving the maximum level of personal freedom that is consistent with the freedom of others is a core belief. It is not a matter of dogma, but of dignity: the dignity that comes with the right and the capacity to determine one's own path in life. What John Stuart Mill has called the freedom to pursue our own good in our own way.
It was that commitment which led us to take up the banners of the liberal agenda - for divorce, for contraception; for gay rights and for women's rights. These were not issues chosen for political expediency. Quite the contrary: Labour activists and politicians know what it is to have been denounced from the pulpit in their own communities. Individually these were battles to be won; together, they were a struggle to realise a different kind of society: a society where human flourishing is predicated on human freedom.
Throughout this, it is safe to say that Ireland's two most powerful institutions - the Oireachtas and the Catholic Church - struggled to keep up. As the pace of change - or the desire to pursue one's own good in one's own way - gathered momentum, legislators and church leaders consistently found themselves behind the curve of public opinion.
I believe that this is still true today. In several areas, changes in social attitudes in Ireland have outpaced the laws we have governing them. This was the impetus for Labour's proposal to hold a Constitutional Convention - a forum where citizens could come together and agree on a new framework for our second century of independence. To determine the principles we want to live by now.
That idea has been in development for the past year, and the Convention will be set up by the autumn. The issues for initial consideration are set out in the Programme for Government, though the Convention may subsequently propose other issues for deliberation.
However, I want to be clear about one thing: the Constitutional Convention is a forum for debating individual reforms, but it is not a warehouse for them. The conversation about what kind of society we want, what kind of rules should govern it, is and should be a much wider one. What is the whole that incremental change adds up to?
Which brings me back to the question of freedom.
Labour's core belief is that there are areas of our lives, where the freedom of each individual, is the best guarantee of the rights of all. And nowhere is this clearer, than in the matter of religious faith.
There are those who like to paint the Labour Party as anti-religious. As somehow intolerant of faith and religious beliefs. I couldn't disagree more. At the heart of our political philosophy is personal freedom, which includes freedom of thought and freedom of religion. And by freedom of religion, I also mean the freedom to have no religion at all. But it is my strong view that the best - and indeed the only - means of guaranteeing religious freedom for all, is the full separation of Church and State.
It is not only religious freedom which is guaranteed by the separation of Church and State, but freedom itself. Religious freedom is not the freedom to impose forced marriages, for example, or to deny women their civil rights. Indeed, the most reliable litmus test for the separation of Church and State, is the State's willingness to uphold the civil, political and economic rights of women.
Some may see this view - the separation of Church and State in all matters - as a threat to the established order of things. In the modern world, it is a guarantee that people of all faiths and none should cherish.
I should also say, lest the opportunity go past, that I have tremendous admiration for the work done by many people of faith. There are many religious, and others who are motivated by their faith to do enormous good. Who are fellow travellers with us on the path to social justice, to equality, to solidarity. And whose contribution to the community is invaluable.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have also seen close up, the legacy that has been created for Ireland by Irish religious who have gone abroad, and who were the precursors of an aid programme that is one of the best in its class. As President Clinton said in new York in the Spring, there is no country in Europe who has a more positive relationship with Africa than Ireland, and when you consider that 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, that is an economic as well as a diplomatic asset to us all.
Putting the case for religious freedom - for laws of the State that are divisible from those of the Church, for public services that are predicated on freedom of religion - is not to deny the value of religious faith, or its capacity to enrich our society. After all, a State which actively supports religious freedom is not a State which is devoid of religion.
What cannot be denied, however, are the consequences for Ireland of a State and Church whose interests, for much of our independence, were indivisible. Arguably the most serious of these was the horrific abuse suffered by children in Church-run institutions, where the State sub-contracted its duty of care, yet failed to invigilate what happened next. And while the relationship between Church and State has been transformed - a transformation led, it must be said, from the bottom up - modern Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of that special relationship, from our Constitution, to the provision of public services in health and education in particular.
In the new Ireland, with its new face, in this new century, we must confront these legacy issues. We must do so on the basis of understanding and respect, but we must do so, also based on the primacy of personal freedom. Personal freedom - insofar as it is consistent with the freedom of others - must be the cornerstone of a new relationship between Church, and State, and citizens in Ireland.
I want to highlight just two issues which lie on the frontier of that old relationship, and the new, progressive society Labour is in Government to build.
The first is school patronage. 96 per cent of primary schools in Ireland are denominational, with the Catholic Church accounting for just under 90 percent of those. That this no longer reflects either the diversity of Irish society, or of parents' wishes, had been acknowledged by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. One of Ruairi Quinn's first actions as Minister for Education was to establish a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector.
The ideas and recommendations from that Forum, set out the ways in which a diversity of faith formation, and education for children of all religions and none, could be delivered by primary schools. Change, while already beginning, will not happen overnight. Our national school system has served us for over 180 years, and it is important that the views of patrons, and especially of parents, are taken on board. But at the end of this process, we will have a roadmap for a new, diverse and inclusive school system, fit for a new century and a new generation.
The second issue is one where, I believe, our laws are out of step with public opinion. It is not the role of the State to pass judgement on who a person falls in love with, or who they want to spend their life with. That is why one of the reforms for consideration by the Constitutional Convention is a provision for same-sex marriage. I believe in gay marriage. The right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation, and, in my opinion, its time has come.
And there are other issues which, I believe, will challenge us to reassess the interconnectedness of the views of one Church, with the laws of the country. The referendum on children's rights, to take place later this year, is one. Stem cell research is another.
There will be differing views on all of these social questions, and I look forward to vigorous and respectful debate on them. But let me make one thing clear: this is not about the past. Rather, it is about a positive vision of society - one where every person, regardless of background, gender or creed, is free to flourish.
Like others, Labour is a party forged by history. But, unlike others, we will not be defined by it, or bound by it, because we are also a party of ideas and of ideals.
Irish society is changing. In many ways, the future is already here - in people's personal relationships, in their attitudes, in their beliefs. We have an opportunity now, in Government, to meet that change head on.
As a country, our first century of independence was dominated by the nationalist debate about Irish freedom. Let our second century be defined by a concept of freedom that is universal. A concept of freedom that is not afraid of difference, or of change. In short, the freedom of Irish citizens to realise their own happiness, in their own way.