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Katherine Zappone with her wife Ann Louise Gilligan Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

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

Small changes in language could make a world of difference at the Constitutional Convention, writes Senator Katherine Zappone – so let’s get it right.

WHEN I GOT married in Canada in 2003 to Dr Ann Louise Gilligan, I was not given a legal certificate for ‘same-sex marriage’; I was given a certificate for marriage.

I am not in a ‘gay marriage.’ Gay means man; lesbian means woman. I have nothing to say about gay marriage or same-sex marriage. I have a lot to say about marriage – and it is that institution that the Constitutional Convention should be examining and debating, and whether or not the institution of marriage ought to be open for same-sex couples as it is for opposite-sex couples, and whether or not the human right to marry can be exercised by everyone.

The enactment of civil partnership exclusively for same-sex couples has already created a separate and unequal institution; Ireland does not need another separate institution called ‘same-sex marriage’.

The Taoiseach and the Tanaiste have described the proposed Constitutional Convention as a “vehicle for profound social reform”. I believe that the Convention has the potential to do this but it cannot do so in its current form. The current proposals are limited in both vision and scope.

We need a more effective model of deliberative democracy and citizen engagement so that the resulting recommendations for constitutional reform will be ‘fit for purpose’ for all people. The process must have a genuine feeling of fairness, and it must reform our foundational legal document so that it provides Irish society with greater possibility for justice and truth to be practiced.

It is claimed that the Convention will be “broadly representative” of society in terms of gender, age, regional balance. The standard of ‘inclusiveness of those who are marginalised’ ought to augment the representative character of the 66 citizens invited to be members of this Convention. I have a profound belief in the need for this. Political theorists such as Anne Phillips and Iris Young argue convincingly that deliberative democracy will only arrive and right and just conclusions if those affected by the decisions get a chance to have be part of the decision-making and not simply part of those who are consulted.

Skewed results

Suppose the ‘representative’ sample is made up entirely of heterosexual people? Or that all of the sample would be a member of a world religion? Undoubtedly that would skew results for the debates on marriage and blasphemy.

The Convention should facilitate widespread and meaningful consultation. It should be a model of best practice of public participation in constitutional reform – as advocated by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and its partners. Civil society organisations should be named as key stakeholders within the context of the Convention. Members of these organisations are not simply ‘interest groups’. Again – language matters. They are people with expert knowledge.

As Jurgen Habermas and other authoritative political and social theorists posit, we all bring ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’ to matters of public debate – we all construct knowledge according to our commitments, interests, presuppositions including constitutional lawyers, academics & political theorists.

Twenty of our leading equality and human rights organisations, facilitated by Amnesty International, have called for economic, social and cultural rights to be considered by the Convention. A recent Red C poll identified significant public support for the Convention to look at the right to healthcare and the right to housing. Shouldn’t the citizens of this Convention have the opportunity to say whether or not everyone should have the right to the same quality of healthcare within the same time-period? Isn’t this integral to the Government’s plan for universal healthcare?

The Convention’s design, its membership, its operational procedures, its content and the use of its outcomes must incorporate the principles of a model of best practice for public participation in Constitutional reform if we are to maximise the possibility that this Convention could be a critical component in revitalising our Republic.

Senator Katherine Zappone is an independent member of the Seanad.

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