One week after a victory for marriage equality the No side’s crack troops have remained behind in pockets of resistance. Snipers taking pot shots, the retrograde actions of an army in retreat. From declarations of a defeat for humanity to divine retribution in the form of a meteor strike, the immediate reactions have been animated. Despite wailing and gnashing of teeth from certain quarters, some cautionary lessons for consideration have arisen from the past few months.
Ireland has become the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote. While human rights should not be subject to consensus, given their antecedence and inalienability, the success of the Yes campaign by referendum has rubber-stamped marriage equality with the mandate of the citizens of Ireland. The referendum asked the majority to surrender the privileged position of being allowed enter into the contract and protection of marriage, until then the exclusive domain of heterosexual relationships. It was about parity of value before the law. It was about what we, as a society, believe about the nature of the sexual orientation and whether one should be legally privileged above another. It was about recognising common humanity. It was about more than marriage. It was, at its core, a referendum about nothing less than human rights. Herein lies a paradox.
While it may seem self-evident that all Irish citizens of voting age should have had the right to vote no had they so chosen, and counterintuitive to suggest that there could only be one permissible choice in a yes/no ballot, this is what I proffer for consideration. Human rights are inalienable and the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the Marriage Equality Bill was an exercise in ensuring that the Constitution is fit for purpose. The fact that marriage equality was put to referendum was a procedural requirement as the only means of changing the Constitution. But the right to discriminate or exclude based on sexual orientation did not exist in the first place. Therefore, the right to vote no never really existed.
As well as legally enshrining marriage equality, there has been a secondary outcome of the referendum. The heretofore perceived moral majority have been shown categorically to be the minority. They have also been forced to show their hand. That hand was a campaign of negativity, fear and bitterness, with its arguments falling into three broad ideological categories; religious compulsion, ignorance of the facts and plain, old-fashioned bigotry. There is an important lesson to be learned here that we would be remiss to ignore.
Although the Catholic Church is the largest in the country and therefore most prominent and influential, the objection to marriage equality was common across the religious spectrum and formed the socio-political foundation of most of the No side’s arguments.
It would behove religious institutions and their doctrinal adherents, in a Republic with separation of Church and State, to remember that science (in this case social and political science) and religion deal with separate fields of inquiry and their realms of authority differ. It is a matter of independent, variable facts versus subjective values. No church or citizen has the moral or legal right to impose their specific definition of religious marriage on the civil process.
One of the most broadly employed tactics of the No side was the propagation of ignorance and confusion amongst No voters, as well as a certain amount of deliberate intellectual laziness.
In the absence of coherent, developed arguments, the No campaign resorted to a series of unqualified platitudes, deliberately ignoring facts, pernicious obfuscation, misinformation, scare-mongering and defamation.
The common denominator was the codification of a No side language of discourse that considered gay identity as a seedy, minority underbelly and perpetuated the concept of otherness.
At its worst, this same codified language masked an insidious bigotry. Where as to the religious objector “surrogacy” and “adoption” were signifiers for “gay people shouldn’t raise children because their lifestyle is immoral”, for the bigots they were cyphers for “paedophilia” and “promiscuity.” Cryptographs for the public-house-high-stool-perched, wink-and-nod “queers getting married? Disgusting. No way!” attitude. The spiteful supplications of the perpetually and intellectually local grand-fellas and their sexless wives to the pantheon of gods of the status quo.
Ireland is still imperfect and unequal. But we have spoken, demanded and achieved a more caring, inclusive society. We have also learned that the old guard is still there, over seven-hundred thousand strong. A minority, but a significant one, who will happily drag us back to the bad old days if we don’t continue to actively and passionately participate in the democratic process.