Ireland – which decriminalised male homosexual acts only twenty-three years ago, and where it was illegal for single people to buy a condom until 1992 – is now officially the most homophiliac country in the world. It is the first state ever to put gay marriage to a vote, and lodge in its constitution the right of same sex-couples to wed.
Because that right was placed in the part of the constitution protecting the family, some critics of the proposal declare that this could enable gay couples to declare that their right to have a family is as constitutionally protected as their right to marry.
Weird, perhaps? Not in the least. Thirty years ago, in a hysterical and very nasty campaign organised by the Catholic Church, a ban on abortion was inserted in the constitution (which is, rather like a visit to the White House on St Patrick’s Day, how something becomes important in the Irish mind). But in time, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that this ban on abortion could sometimes mean that abortion was permitted.
There are some things in life I long ago that decided never to try and understand – the silicon chip, women’s tennis, the place of the mosquito in the scheme of things – and to this list may be added the workings of the minds of a panel of Irish judges. A small step for a man; a giant step in a puddle of pooh for mankind, is probably as close as I can get.
Now, it has to be said that the referendum campaign was about as unbalanced as it possible to be outside the joyous purlieus of old Pyongyang. The yes to gay marriage lobby was backed by all newspapers – even in their news coverage, where the objectivity of Pathe News, June 1944, was suddenly rediscovered. Social and electronic media were as pro-yes as camels are pro-hump. All main parties – including Fine Gael, the main governing party, and once the Voice of the Vatican in plain clothes, the main opposition, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Fein, which has finally abandoned the chainsaw and midnight shovel with which it once dealt with people it disagreed with – backed the Yes campaign
The No campaign had almost no political backing, and a tepid, timid, querulous support from the Irish Catholic Church, which these days probably has more power on the movement of Saturn’s moons than it does on the conscience of Ireland. Years of child abuse scandals, institutional cover-ups, insensate arrogance and cowardly evasions have left the church as vigorous and lively as Ophelia in her muddy death.
It would actually have been possible for the Yes campaign to have made a same-sex union lawful without the referendum. Article Forty of the Constitution, which covers an individual’s freedoms declares: “The state guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, to defend and protect and vindicate the personal rights of the individual.”
But the simple route was eschewed and the complex one embraced, as if the Law of Unintended Consequences (which governs almost everything in Irish life, from the 1916 Rising to bring about an all-Ireland Republic which still hasn’t happened to the ban on abortion that authorised abortion) never existed. This requires a profound cultural amnesia, no doubt aided by the feelings of benignity that suffused through the Irish body-politic at the invocation of the e-word. Yes, it was called the marriage-equality referendum.
Any attempt to ascertain what equality meant here – and I had a few goes myself – was met with pious platitudes about respect, love, decency, dignity, hope: like trying to capture mercury with a hammer. It is one of the legal requirements of a marriage that either couple may expect it to consummated by sexual intercourse, which is defined, very specifically, as admission of the penis into the vagina. It doesn’t have to be fun, indeed it might very well be foul, but it is the physical deed that confirms the marriage has taken place. It is most dictionaries’ first definition of the word ‘consummate’. Moreover, one partner can sue for nullity – that is, the marriage had never occurred – without that act. And needless to say, such a legally validating deed is absent from same sex unions.
“Oh but it doesn’t matter if people love one another,” gushed one panellist on a radio show. Oh but it does. Just wait until the judges get their forensic teeth into the issue of consummation, or non-consummation, once a gay couple decide that married life isn’t for them, and one of them wants the easy and cost-effective way out of marriage (nullity, which is much cheaper and instant) and the other wants divorce (complete division of assets, takes five years of separation and is very very expensive).
And of course, there is no such thing as marriage equality between any two persons, no matter how they frolic with their pelvic parts: ask any divorce lawyer. Indeed, if you’re married, you know that no metric of your marriage is equalled by those of your friends, even the ones you’re having affairs with. Marriages are like snowflakes, each one unique – and that’s before we get to the more general issue of children.
The No campaign tried to focus on the marital consequences of the ‘equality’ aspect. Did this mean that the Irish constitution in practice recognised no difference between fathers and mothers? Were adoption boards to be gender-blind when considering where to place children? Were men to be seen as the biologically equal as pseudo-mothers? The preliminary legal advice was that the referendum would have no impact on the rights and the fates of children; quite so. And as for that 1983 ban on abortion? Yup, it’ll stop abortion in its tracks, said the best legal advice back then….only it didn’t. Lawyers’ law, Irish style.
So, the larger issue of the rights of adopted children to know all their parents, biological and adoptive, of the legal rights of the natural mother who is giving up her child to be able to direct that child into the sort of family of her choosing, and the glorious, golden world of surrogacy, all will no doubt in time become judges’ playdough.
That happy day in the nursery of the Irish Supreme Court is probably some years down the track. For the moment, it is probably enough to reflect on the huge journey that Ireland has taken in recent years. This was once a country that once was so voluntarily wedded to the laws of the Catholic Church that it gave it a special place in its constitution, and where by the 1950s, over five thousand books were banned. In 1979, the film, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, was banned because it violated the teachings of the Catholic Church, and in the 1980s the feminist publication, ‘Spare Rib’ was regularly banned because it contained articles on that wicked practice known as ‘contraception’.
And as it happens, by happy timing this last week Prince Charles was finally able to visit Ireland, and Mullaghmore, the fishing village where his great uncle Lord Mountbatten was blown up, along with another octogenarian and two children, the same year that the Monty Python film was banned. During his visit, he shook the hand of Gerry Adams, a senior member of the IRA at the time of the atrocity
So, in very short order, Ireland has entered a new place, with entirely new values. Whether post-Catholic left-liberal Ireland turns out to be as tolerant as its defenders promise is quite another question. David Quinn, the Catholic journalist who was the most vocal promoter of the No campaign was personally vilified in the run-up to the referendum. On hearing that his cause was defeated, he tweeted a civil acceptance of the outcome, and congratulations to the Yes campaign. Immediately came the reply from the Yes-hollering Trolls: Time to emigrate, you c***. Ah yes, finally: Ireland is just like everywhere else.