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Civil Partnership Bill, 2nd Stage Debate (2): Rhetoric, Religion and the Republic

Narratives of Progress: Who Stands by the Republic Now?

In his speech in yesterday’s Civil Partnership debate, Deputy James Reilly (FG) said:

 I know that some speakers do not feel it goes far enough, but it is useful to remind ourselves from whence we have come. It is well within living memory when homosexuality was a crime in this country. Before that, it was even considered to be an illness. Awareness and enlightenment has slowly come, but it has come nonetheless.

 Yesterday saw the Civil Partnership Bill claimed from both sides of the house as emblematic of Ireland’s move towards not merely progressive but secular politics. Labour’s Ciaran Lynch, for instance said that ‘this Bill is a milestone, as Ireland moves from a theocracy to a democracy’.  The Civil Partnership Bill, it seems, is the mirror in which we look when we no longer want to see the Ireland of the Ryan Report gazing back.

However, Martin Mansergh (FF) made a speech which blurred the reflection, demonstrating that many Irish politicians, even while professing support for a separation of church and state, feel obliged nevertheless to address certain types of religious claim. Mr Mansergh’s speech ranged over such topics as Sodom and Gomorrah, the possibility of divine retribution for iniquity  the possibility that divine retribution has something to do with the crisis in Haiti, the lament of King David for Jonathan, St Paul’s prohibition of fornication and the criminalisation of homosexuality under Shari’a.  Discussion of a freedom of conscience amendment to the Bill also underscored the ‘pull’ which religion exerts on the Irish legislative process.

 For some TD’s a careful negotiation of religion and the social mores it supports was inevitable. A number acknowledged that the Bill fell short of securing a status which matched that of marriage, but cast it as a temporary progressive measure. Ciaran Lynch captured this point when he said that:

There are many contexts, interpretations and opinions about the Bill. There is a strong opinion that it is the gay community’s aspiration to have full legal equality with their heterosexual peers, as that is as it should be… However, the best is often the enemy of the good. The introduction of full civil marriage for the gay community would require a constitutional referendum, as has been indicated by other speakers. This is the advice of the Attorney-General and our party’s legal advice. At present there is far from a majority of this House in favour of putting this issue to the people, let alone surety that such a referendum would be carried. While a criticism of this Bill might be that it is a stagist approach, I do not view that as a bad thing. Therefore, I see merit in this legislation for those members of the gay community who cannot wait for a time when these circumstances change, particularly for gay and lesbian couples who need the protection of the law now, rather than the consolation of an ideal further down the road, irrespective of whether that be a constitutional referendum on this issue.

 By contrast, other deputies, including Mr. Lynch’s colleague Ruairi Quinn and Aengus O Snodaigh of Sinn Fein insisted that a Bill which did not provide for ‘gay marriage’ as such was inadequate, however practical it might be. The standard against which its adequacy was to be measured, they claimed, was that of ‘the republic’. Republicanism is back in vogue in Irish political discourse, particularly wherever religion asserts its relevance; Tom Hickey discussed this phenomenon in the context of Irish schools here. Deputy Michael  Fitzpatrick claimed the Bill as a manifestation of Fianna Fail’s republicanism, but Sinn Fein and Labour denounced it as something quite different. Aengus O Snodaigh said that:

The 1916 Proclamation, which was supposedly the guiding document for the Constitution, calls on us to cherish all the children of the nation equally and that is often quoted. The spirit, theory and practice of republicanism should be to promote equality and, in that spirit, this issue needs to be revisited properly and constitutional protection needs to be afforded to the reforms I seek. These reforms should be included in this Bill or another Bill dealing with proper civil marriage for all.

The final speech of the day was Ruairi Quinn’s, which we mentioned yesterday for his reference to the anniversary of an important speech by Parnell. Mr. Quinn’s is one of the clearest recent attempts to reclaim Irish republicanism for a particular legislative vision. You can read it here.

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