To Win the Marriage Referendum, We Have To Dispel Confusion

Breda O'Brien Iona

If January’s ‘Claire Byrne Live’ debate on same-sex marriage had taken place two weeks before May’s Marriage Referendum, we would have been seriously in danger of losing the vote, says Brian Finnegan.


It’s not easy to go on an RTÉ current affairs show and argue for marriage equality, especially if you’re gay or lesbian. Usually, there’s a good half hour beforehand, in which you wait in the same area as your opponent(s), either in hostile silence or trying to pretend everything’s grand and awkwardly shooting the breeze. You know that other person is working hard to deny you equal rights, based on their own personal convictions, yet you somehow have to pass the time in a falsely convivial space together.

Before you know it, the show’s presenter is greeting you on the set in that detached ‘working, can’t talk’ way, you get ‘miked up’ and you wait in absolute silence for a cue that the broadcast is about to begin. Then suddenly you’re off and the debate darts along, with you trying to get your word in, the right words in, feeling all the responsibility of properly representing your community, fielding the arguments from the other side, which you know already, but which come at you from all sorts of discombobulating angles.

As the gay advocate of equality, you are always being shoved towards a self-justifying corner, which is hard to avoid. You don’t want to be defensive. You want to smile and argue proactively, but all the opposition arguments, along with most of the questions from the presenter, are designed to get your back up. And because the issue is so deeply personal to you, it’s hard not to get emotional.

I could see this unfolding on the first edition of Claire Byrne Live on Monday, January 19, with its debate on the Marriage Referendum. It featured Breda O’Brien (pictured) of the Iona Institute and a Eurovision blogger called Keith Mills on ‘No’ side, while John Lyons TD and Una Mullally of the Irish Times argued for marriage equality.

It didn’t make for pleasant viewing. For the most part, O’Brien had the upper hand, peddling confusion over what the Marriage Referendum is about. Lyons and Mullally did their best to clarify the issues, but constantly found themselves being backed into that defensive corner. Contributions from the audience descended into bear-pit hostility.

Although the debate was supposed to be about the Marriage Referendum, it actually turned out to be about the Children and Family Relationships Bill, with O’Brien and invited members of the audience conflating the two. When Lyons mentioned that the Bill would be going through its final stages soon, Claire Byrne inappropriately had a go at him for it not being passed quickly enough, throwing confusion about surrogacy into the mix, as if the murky laws surrounding surrogacy in Ireland, which mainly affect heterosexual couples, have anything to do with the same-sex marriage referendum.

Let’s be clear: the Children and Family Relationships Bill will be enacted, whether or not the Irish people vote Yes to same-sex marriage, so to say that the rights of children are the crux of the referendum debate is a gross and misleading inaccuracy.

This inaccuracy is the one fighting tool the No camp can employ. They do not have secret cards to play. Their argument is solely based on the right of a child to a mother and a father in the context of heterosexual marriage. I assume the editors and producers at RTÉ know that the Children and Family Relationships Bill covers this issue, but they chose to allow the debate to go way the ‘No’ camp wanted it to go, so we had arguments about reproductive rights and children having the right to know their sperm donor fathers. When Mullally tried to clarify, saying that civil marriage for same-sex couples is an equality issue, O’Brien piped up with: “What about the equality of children?”

Under current civil partnership legislation, the children of same-sex couples are not equally protected. O’Brien does not want to see this legislation changed. The Children and Family Relationships Bill, however, will change this, giving all children in Ireland an equal right to their parents. She did not mention this.

I’m glad that the Claire Byrne Live debate didn’t take place two weeks before the referendum, because if it did, we would be in grave danger of losing the vote. Thankfully, it happened at the start of what’s going to be a long four months, and we need to take it as a lesson on the way to go forward. We need to present clear, concise, non-emotive arguments about the real issue, which is the equal constitutional status, dignity and recognition of gay and lesbian people. People who were born straight have this status automatically. People who were born gay do not and that is an injustice that needs to be rectified so this country can live up to its claims to be a fair and just society.

Every time someone from the ‘No’ camp mentions children, the ‘Yes’ camp needs to bring up the Children and Family Relationships Bill and ask for clarification on whether we are discussing that or the Marriage Referendum. While separating one from the other, we also need to clearly say that we understand that children are being raised in all sorts of families in modern Ireland and that what children need most are love, security and commitment. We need to repeat that these issues are addressed by the Children and Family Relationships Bill, not the Marriage Referendum.

Not every reader of GCN is going to be invited on TV to debate the Marriage Referendum, but plenty will find themselves involved in discussions on home ground. This month, we’re beginning a series of simple tips on how to talk to the people in your lives about the referendum, which we’ll be publishing in GCN and sharing via our social networks; this series will continue until the referendum. If we’re going to win this, we have to know how to argue in a way that removes confusion, both deliberate and accidental, in public and private arenas.

© 2015 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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