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Column: Two years on – how civil partnership helped change Irish attitudes

I’m proud I was involved in bringing about civil partnership, because it’s made a real difference to people’s lives – including my own, writes Roderic O’Gorman.

Roderic O'Gorman

This month marks the second anniversary of civil partnership in Ireland, after the first gay and lesbian couples gave their notice at registry offices in January 2011.

Here Roderic O’Gorman, who played a part in the campaign for civil partnership legislation, describes how it came to pass – and the impact it has had.

SINCE THE CIVIL Partnership Act was passed, 965 civil partnerships have been undertaken within the country. Almost 2,000 men and women now enjoy the rights and responsibilities that the legislation provides. Public polling has registered increased majority support for full civil marriage.

Perhaps the Irish Catholic Bishops put it best when they stated:

By making civil partnerships as much like marriage as possible, the [Civil Partnership Bill] is preparing a situation where, in the future, calling same-sex unions ‘marriage’ will seem only a small step. Indeed it is likely that, in day-to-day language and in the media, civil partnerships will be referred to as ‘marriage’.

When social change happens, its success can often seem inevitable, but the reality is usually different. The achievement of civil partnership in Ireland is a good example of this.

When the Green Party went into Government in 2007, I had the opportunity to input on the drafting of the civil partnerships legislation. The issue of same-sex marriage had almost derailed the negotiations between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, due to their refusal to budge on the issue. The eventual compromise in the Programme for Government stated that coalition government would legislate for civil partnership at the earliest possible date. From this point on, the goal shared by myself and the Green TDs and staff involved was to make the rights and responsibilities of civil partnerships as close to marriage as possible.

Full equality

While we acknowledged that civil partnership was not the full equality that gay and lesbian couples deserved, we strongly believed that it would act as a stepping stone towards marriage equality, as it had in other jurisdictions such as Belgium and Connecticut. We saw civil partnerships as a means of extending real protection to the many existing same-sex couples in the country, but also of granting official State recognition for these relationships.

After the formation of the Government, I met with then Justice Minister Brian Lenihan on a number of occasions, as well as with civil servants in his department. I knew Brian, having stood against him in Dublin West in the 2007 General Election. Throughout my interactions with him, it was clear that he was personally well disposed to ensuring extensive rights were provided for gay and lesbian couples, while stopping short of marriage. He also made it clear that he felt constrained by the more traditionalist view shared by many backbench FF TDs.

Some were critical of the Green Party for not insisting on full marriage equality or nothing. For a period, the Civil Partnership Bill was severely denigrated by some activists, culminating in a copy of it being ripped up at the Gay Pride Parade. This criticism was difficult to take, both because we genuinely believe this was a significant step forward for LGBT rights but also because it played into the hands of those on the right who wished to scupper the bill.

Changing attitutes

After the Civil Partnership Bill was introduced in the Dail there was a significant change in attitudes within Fianna Fáil. This was largely due to our interactions with them on the issue and sustained lobbying by organisations such as GLEN but also a more liberal attitude on the part of members of Ogra Fianna Fail. Marriage Equality’s campaign whereby gay and lesbian constituents lobbied their Fianna Fáil TDs also had an impact.

But some attitudes were harder to change. During this period, myself and some Green TDs attended a meeting of people opposed to the civil partnerships act for religious reasons. We listened to the concerns expressed by many of the 60 or so present in the Lord Edward Hotel – some of which were put forward in a very forceful manner. I recall being struck when, towards the end of the meeting I mentioned that I was gay and what I felt the bill would mean to me, the palpable hostility of the meeting lessened significantly. I got the impression that many there probably hadn’t met a gay men or women before. As I left the meeting, one elderly lady held my hand and told me:

God doesn’t hate you. He just hates … the act itself.

In the end, the Bill’s passage through the Dail was achieved with complete unanimity. The final stage in the Seanad was more controversial, with three Fianna Fáil senators joining Ronan Mullen in making a sustained attempt to delay a concluding vote. Sitting in the public gallery with some Green Party colleagues, there was a real sense that this was something that would make a real difference in people’s lives (including my own). This was what politics should be about.

Public perception has changed hugely from 2005, when the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution refused to even suggest a referendum on same-sex marriage, regarding it as too controversial. I strongly believe that the approach of achieving civil partnership, despite its limitations, was the correct one in that it is providing immediate protection, while at the same time changing peoples’ attitudes to gay and lesbian relationships. Now, the proposed Constitutional Convention offers the opportunity to finally achieve the goal that was started by civil partnership – full marriage equality within our country.

Roderic O’Gorman is Chairperson of the Green Party and its local representative in Dublin West. He is a lecturer in Dublin City University where he teaches Constitutional Law, EU Law and Business Law.

Read: Almost 1,000 civil partnerships in Ireland in 2012>

Column: I’m not in a “same-sex marriage”. I’m in a marriage.>

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