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The truth behind the Irish Same-Sex Marriage Referendum

 Can we allow another referendum like this?

Sunday Business Post 24 May 2015 by Tom McGurk

A Referendum Yes Campaign funded by $25 million from the US and

Complex arguments reduced to marketing slogans

says little for the integrity and dignity of our democracy.

There is relief that the referendum campaign is over. It’s like coming up for air.  Never in a lifetime of journalistic experience can I remember a referendum campaign that unleashed such levels of bitterness and division within Irish society.  It didn’t have to be like this, and I have no doubt that the direction chosen by the government served to inflame the situation.

Nor do I think that I was the only one who detected a deeply unpleasant undercurrent of bullying. To question the Yes vote publicly was to risk public attack. Particularly during the television debates, the contempt and arrogance of the Yes side towards the No side’s concerns was manifest.

From the outset, there were two separate matters going on here and their significance was lost in the general mayhem. There was the matter of a marriage facility for gay people and the question of how to bring it about, given Irish constitutional requirements.

I have little doubt that - if the government had from the outset devised a legal method whereby an institution of same-sex marriage could be enacted and given constitutional protection while simultaneously maintaining conventional marriage parameters, there would hardly have been an objection anywhere in the country.

In this context let me say this without reservation: I support gay marriage and I believe that for too long Ireland’s gay community has had to exist on the margins. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to love within an institution that guarantees equality.

Sadly, we have had many examples of the law of unintended consequences in relation to referendums and I suspect that here we go again.

From day one this referendum was extraordinarily ambitious. It was designed not just to bring about gay marriage but, because of the particular method chosen, to utterly transform Irish society in the process. There was also a determined effort to carefully disguise that it was doing so in the first place. Why?

Despite the furious denials from the Yes camp, the path the government took through the Family articles in the Constitution was inevitably going to unleash wider concerns about matters of gender, parentage, biological linkages and methods of human procreation.

The “only nine little words in the Constitution” was as brazen an act of public deception as I have ever seen attempted. The official referendum line as just “a simple attempt to make all our citizens equal” and the extraordinary insistence that “it has nothing to do with children” were simply risible.

Clearly, traditional concepts of marriage and family - centuries old and preceding all religious imperatives - were being turned on their heads. Yet the government line was still insisting “there’s nothing much to see here, move along please”.

I wonder if the approach chosen by the government was linked to yet another extraordinary factor in this referendum, the vast sums of overseas money - some $25 million - which flowed into various organisations campaigning for the Yes vote. It came from the Atlantic Philanthropies in the US. Atlantic has spent $735 million dollars on many worthy causes in Ireland, but does philanthropy now extend to attempting to change Irish social policy and the Irish Constitution?

Did this intervention to directly help the organisations fighting for an internal and ostensibly citizen-based decision – which is what a referendum is in law and practice – not constitute a serious impediment to Irish democracy? Should it not have been questioned by officials and servants of the state? According to Atlantic’s own website, the organisation claims it was previously instrumental in winning the Children’s Rights referendum.

Who can now dispute that the existence of these payments, with the support and agreement of the Taoiseach and his ministers, threatened the sovereignty of the state and raised many serious questions. For example, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission - which recently got $2 million from Atlantic - incorrectly informed the government that there was a right to same-sex marriage under the European Convention on Human Rights. Clearly the commission had never read the Hamalainen v Finland judgment.

And there are further concerns about this money. Did it also pay for American-style political methodology? Did not the entire campaign, how it was designed and its careful and clever parameters, not have something of the finger print of Madison Avenue? The techniques used were exactly as used in the US for either product selling or political campaigning. You end up with an advertorial sale, not a democratic debate. You devise a simple message, create a direct appeal to the emotions and dismiss all complications.

The result is the ‘nine little words’ formula, whereby all complicating constitutional issues are dismissed as red herrings and the essential subtext is the insistence on the need for generosity and fairness.  How could decent folk say no to this proposal?

For example the continual use of the term ‘Marriage Equality Referendum’ instead of the correct ‘Same-sex Marriage Referendum’ was deliberately and unacceptably disingenuous; the clear implication being that to vote against was to support inequality and thereby to run the risk of the accusation of homophobia.

Next we got almost the entire political spectrum (under a three-line whip) and the media reduced to a sort of chorus line, all on message. Given the massive popularity of the gay marriage cause among the under-35s, clearly neither political nor commercial risks were being taken here.

The badges, the razzmattaz, the posters, the corporate endorsement (for the first time ever in an Irish democratic process) and the celebrity endorsements, were all designed to disguise the complexity of what was involved.  It was Happy Hour democracy designed to appeal to a younger constituency.

Ironically - and by contrast - the Supreme Court in the US is currently deep in argument about whether same-sex marriage bans are prohibited by the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Their hearing is also a Marriage and Family Law Research Project and the distinguished individuals giving evidence are prominent academic experts in international and comparative law with international experience concerning same-sex marriage and constitutional law.

The contrast with how our government has gone about it could hardly be greater. It seems that expert constitutional advice is more readily available here in Ireland from the man from Google, Mrs Brown, Fergus Finlay, the Gaelic Players Association, Bono and Panti Bliss. Maybe the US Supreme Court should hear from them too?

And there’s another important question arising next. If other referendums down the road are to involve controversial matters like abortion, euthanasia etc, will such amounts of foreign financial input be allowed? If it’s not legally permissible in Dáil elections, why is it all right when changes are proposed for our Constitution?

What has this weekend achieved? The undeniable reality of our times is that where technology goes we inevitably have to follow. Already science has revolutionised human reproduction and the sense is that we are only at the beginning. We can be Canute-like, but the challenges to traditional approaches will not go away. If anything, they will multiply in the decades ahead.

It’s the first time in our human existence that family has diversified to this extent in this century.

For some, it’s the beginning of a new and liberating age. For others, it’s the beginning of chaos. Which is it? That in itself is a familiar dilemma from all history. Sadly, only the historians well into the future will have any certainty about what Friday’s result achieved.

28th May 2015
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