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Irish Gay Marriage Referendum Is A Dangerous Experiment

01:37Ciaran McCormick

Ireland is holding a historic referendum on whether same sex couples should have equal marriage rights. It has divided the country and stoked controversy . People at the ballot boxes should feel a moral obligation to vote for equality and the recognition of all loving families. However, the referendum process is flawed. It would have been far better to decide through the usual procedures for laws. The vast majority of the people voting are not even affected.



The fundamental problem with this referendum is that it is about the rights of a minority group. Lesbian, bisexual and gay people are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. It can come in shockingly overt examples like violence and through more subtle heterosexual assumptions and hostility. This is particularly important in Ireland, which has been dominated by the conservative Catholic Church and its unfriendly attitude towards sexual liberalisation. So it seems obvious that it is dangerous to let the majority decide the rights of the minority groups they have traditionally oppressed. This is why a referendum is a bad idea. This is especially true as it is looking increasingly close. The 'no' camp have closed the lead of their opponents in the final few weeks of the campaign.


There is a real problem with empathy here. Put yourself in the position of a young gay person coming to terms with their sexuality. They walk down their street and see their neighbours hanging up signs against their right to marry and hear hate speech at religious services. They know that their worth in society will be decided by a vote. If it is a 'no' vote, they will feel like an unwanted alien in their own home country and may not be able to ask the love of their life to marry them. If it is a 'yes' vote, then always in the back of their minds will be the thought that many people think of them as inferior. The numbers will be printed on black and white for them to see.

Another problem with this dangerous experiment is that it makes it seem like everybody is affected. The reason why this has been put to public vote is because it is an amendment to the constitution. The Marriage Equality Bill 2015 that is the backbone of these proposals has already been passed with overwhelming majorities and support from all four major political parties. Yet this should not be a constitutional issue, other than the need to have protection for the rights, liberties and equality for all people. By putting it to a vote, people will think it affects them. It doesn't.


If you are not planning on marrying a gay person, this referendum will not change your life in any meaningful way. Society will not collapse into a permissive apocalypse. Paedophilia and bestiality will not become the new slippery slope. Marriage will be stronger rather than weaker as an institution. Even the vocal religious figures and organisations that have campaigned against equal marriage will not be affected. The High Court Judge and chairman of the Referendum Commission Kevin Cross confirmed that just like Catholic priests can refuse to marry divorcees, they will be able to discriminate against same sex couples. The only people affected are the people whose right to have their love recognised is endangered by a tyranny of the majority. It may not even be representative of popular opinion. Young people are overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage but have disproportionately low levels of engagement and turnout. Both sides have accused each other of flooding the campaign with money and shipping in voters from abroad. At the end of the day, the fact that something is controversial has no bearing on whether it is morally right or wrong.


The 'no' campaign has divided the country with its negativity and dangerous rhetoric that undermines the position of gay people in society. A dominant theme is that children are damaged by same sex marriage and will be denied the joys of having both a mother and father. Yet this exposes the contradiction in the arguments. People say that marriage is about the raising of children and the interests of the kids in having a nurturing family. But then go on to say that gay people should not be able raise children. Childless and infertile straight couples are allowed to marry. The argument has very little coherence. However, this hasn't stopped opponents of equality making statements with sinister undertones. For example, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said the following. "I ask you to reflect on why humans exist as male and female? It is not an accident or a social construct... I believe that this complementarity belongs to the fundamental definition of marriage." This claims that gay couples are inferior and do not complement each other. Outdated and malicious arguments like this have no place in modern society.


On the other hand, there have been many inspirational moments in the campaign. One of the most important was when the political journalist Ursula Halligan came out as gay during the campaign. She spoke powerfully about the difficulties of LGBT people in a country where homosexuality was illegal until the startlingly recent 1993. Young gay people in Ireland have found the atmosphere uncomfortable. Hatred and division has been legitimised as part of 'debate'. Hopefully, the 'yes' vote will win and it will be a watershed moment for equality on the island. But the next time the issue of minority rights is at stake, political leaders should decide the issues based on the facts and the morals at stake, not just based on the prejudices of the majority. It will take political courage but vulnerable people will not face the torment of having their rights decided by a public vote.

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