Lessons from the marriage referendum

Birgit Schippers looks at the impact of the Republic’s Yes vote in the marriage equality referendum on Northern Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland’s support for marriage equality confounded stereotypes of Catholic Ireland, and put the Irish state on the political map for being the first jurisdiction to introduce same-sex marriage via a popular vote.

Along with the legislative changes already in place in England, Wales, and Scotland, the referendum result highlights the extent to which our region is out of sync with the political transformations in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. However, despite the absence of marriage equality legislation, Northern Ireland is part of a wider movement for cultural change and equality that is awaiting its implementation in law. A Belfast City Council motion supporting marriage equality, put forward in July 2012 by Councillor Mary Ellen Campbell, set the tone for things to come. Supported by Sinn Féin as well as some councillors from the SDLP and Alliance, its impact was symbolic rather than substantive. Its realisation would require the commitment of our devolved legislature to follow the examples set in Britain.

Proposals to hold a Northern Irish marriage equality referendum, similar to the one held in the south of Ireland, were raised frequently during the recent Westminster election campaign. Undoubtedly, a successful popular vote would constitute a powerful expression of legitimacy for same-sex marriage. However, the route to equal marriage via a referendum is opposed by many equality campaigners, including Northern Ireland’s LGBT community, but also by marriage equality critics.

Advocates of same-sex marriage are uncomfortable with the idea of leaving people’s fundamental rights up to the vagaries of a process that puts the rights of a minority into the hands of a majority. Besides, popular support expressed in a referendum would still require legislation by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The DUP, along with prominent members of the Presbyterian Church, have already expressed their preference for a legislative approach. However, such preference is disingenuous. Following several failed attempts to introduce equal marriage legislation, any new effort to change the current marriage arrangement appears doomed to failure in the face of Stormont’s structural obstacles, specifically the deployment of a petition of concern in order to block change. As the legislative process has exhausted itself, the judicial route seems to be the only available option.

In Northern Ireland, marriage remains a privilege for the majority, but not an equal right for everyone. Opponents of equal marriage rely on a set of traditionalist viewpoints that portend a strangely ahistorical and abstract conception of marriage. Its portrayal as a loving bond between two procreating heterosexual individuals is at odds with marriage’s regulated and contractual reality, with its historically changing manifestations, and with the lived experiences of many married couples.

Opposition to marriage equality is couched in child welfare arguments that lack empirical evidence. Notwithstanding their focus on the alleged importance of both mother and father to a child’s well-being, critics of marriage equality deploy a maternalist rhetoric that is at odds with the lived realities of modern patchwork families and with contemporary gender roles. Stripped of their pseudo-scientific and moralistic underpinning, some of the arguments against equal marriage are downright homophobic.

In the wake of the referendum, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s reflections became lost in Vatican sound bites that depicted the referendum result as a defeat for humanity. At its core, this assessment contains the implicit claim that the referendum was a victory for inhumanity, a claim frequently propagated by the more extreme Christian positions on homosexuality that equate gays and lesbians with the figure of the inhuman. Yet despite the Catholic hierarchy’s firm opposition to marriage equality, recent public utterances by individual Catholic priests reveal a spectrum of opinion on this issue amongst Catholic clergy, including an acknowledgment by some that civic matters (including civic marriage) should not be subject to religious interference.

Such views are indicative of a wider climate of cultural change that runs up against the deeply entrenched, and religiously grounded, opposition to equality, human rights, and the legal protection of sexual minorities.

Recent public political debates over a conscience clause, the Ashers case, and the controversy over comments made by former Minister for Health Jim Wells, that a child brought up in a homosexual relationship was “far more likely to be abused and neglected”, illustrate the tensions generated by efforts to advance equality and human rights safeguards.

These tensions also point to shifting political constellations, embodied in a socially conservative alliance comprising the DUP, sections of the UUP and SDLP, and the Christian churches, while Sinn Féin, the Green Party, and sections of the SDLP, Alliance and some unionists take a more progressive stance on issues to do with sexual ethics.

It is already clear that the implications of the Republic’s referendum result extend beyond the introduction of equal marriage.

Plans are under way to amend Section 37 of the Republic’s Employment Equality Act.
This will include the abolition of favourable treatment on religious grounds in institutions with a religious ethos, such as schools and hospitals, and the protection of individual employees and prospective employees against discrimination, and against the chill factor that impinges on the employment prospects for workers whose sexual identities, and family and kinship arrangements do not conform to a dominant religious ethos.

Our policy-makers and legislators have important lessons to learn from the referendum. Big challenges for equality and human rights lie ahead.

Birgit Schippers is Senior Lecturer in Politics at St Mary’s University College Belfast.

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