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Column: For politicians, the gay marriage debate is a careful calculation

The stakes are high for elected representatives in picking a stance on same-sex marriage, writes Scott de Buitléir – and don’t they know it.

Scott De Buitléir

FOR THE LAST few weeks, the topic of gay marriage has been at the fore in the Irish media. Articles and debates appearing in print and broadcast media have sparked curiosity among the public, which in turn triggers the media to keep it in the public eye.

Whatever opinion you may have on the matter, the issue of gay marriage and other rights has never been so politically fuelled in Ireland. But it is one that politicians aren’t naïve about.

If a politician supports gay marriage, (s)he is praised by the gay community and others, while running the risk of losing support from those less liberal. If (s)he announces opposition to the idea, its supporters will call her every name they can get away with, without being brought to the courts for slander. Few social issues have politicians so concerned with their actions.

Eamon Gilmore, Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and the mayor of Limerick, Gerry McLoughlin have all come out – pardon the pun – in favour of gay marriage in Ireland, believing that it is the next logical step after civil partnership. To these politicians, civil partnership isn’t enough anymore – which echoes the opinions of gay rights groups, who accepted civil partnership as a stepping stone to what they perceive as full equality.

Many felt, however, that Ireland wouldn’t budge on the matter unless (or until) Britain were to upgrade their own arrangements for same-sex couples. Now, surprisingly, Ireland almost looks like it could beat the UK to the rainbow-coloured finish line.

‘Very strange’

Having voted in support of the idea at the recent árdfheis, Fianna Fáil’s stance on the matter was reiterated when Micheál Martin challenged Enda Kenny in the Dáil on why he wouldn’t do the same as his Tánaiste and publicly support gay marriage.

It struck me as very strange that the leader of a party which recently established its own LGBT group wouldn’t support the hopes of his own party’s members. Also, considering every party in the Republic now supports the idea of gay marriage, Kenny’s refusal to comment hinted at a worry. Possibly a worry he had that influential people behind the scenes would desert Fine Gael and/or the Taoiseach were he to support the notion. And if that isn’t the case, another question should be asked: did Fine Gael set up their new LGBT group because they respect their gay and lesbian members, or were they just a little envious of the influence Labour have over the gay community?

Which brings me to point out something else that didn’t sit too well. At the end of the Dublin Pride festival, Eamon Gilmore announced his support for gay marriage. The gay community as a whole delighted in his public stance – although many wouldn’t be too surprised, as the Labour Party have a long-established tradition of being pro-gay. Still, if you were the leader of a political party whose LGBT group was the strongest in the country, wouldn’t you make your announcement with them? That way, the group’s hard work throughout the years would be acknowledged, right? Makes sense.

However, this didn’t happen. Instead, Gilmore stood for the cameras with two members of the pressure group, Marriage Equality. That indicates something political – with both a small and a big ‘p’ – to me. Which certainly isn’t something to fault Marriage Equality on, but it can’t be denied that the lack of Labour LGBT’s presence at that photoshoot put a lot of noses out of joint within Labour.

Battlefield

Now with its inclusion into the Constitutional Convention, the next step will probably be a referendum, which the Irish seem to love almost as much as the English love queues. Sinn Féin have sped the movement up somewhat, putting motions to support gay marriage on different council boards across the island.

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Both Belfast and Cork city councils now support gay marriage (although the positive vote in Belfast was helped by the DUP walking out). Still, Northern Ireland could be left behind by both the Republic and by Britain on the issue, as Stormont would have to introduce it independent of what Westminster votes in, and any difference in gay rights between north and south could be argued as a breach in the Good Friday Agreement.

Either way, it can’t be denied that the movement for gay marriage is slowly but surely reaching its goal. More and more politicians are openly in favour of its introduction into the State, probably much to the alarm of opposing groups. Ireland’s political scene more widely also seems to be acclimatising, with LGBT groups in both of the current government’s parties and several openly gay figures as TDs, Senators and a mayor.

Until gay marriage is brought in, however, the issue of LGBT rights will continue to be a highly political battlefield.

Scott De Buitléir is a freelance journalist, writing both in Irish and English. He also presents The Cosmo every Wednesday evening from 8pm on RTÉ Pulse digital radio. His blog is here: scottdb.blog.com and you can follow him on Twitter @scottdebuitleir.

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