ON 22 MAY the nation will go to the polls to decide on two Constitutional amendments: one will explicitly permit marriage between two persons “without distinction as to their sex”; the other will lower the age of eligibility for Presidential candidates from 35 to 21.
The marriage equality referendum has understandably attracted the most attention and is currently expected to pass by a landslide, a reflection on just how long overdue this reform is. But as satisfying as it is to celebrate progress, let’s not forget that change in this area and others is overdue for a reason.
Citizens are calling for wider reforms
The bulk of the credit for both the marriage equality and presidential age limit referenda rightly lies not with the traditional political parties, whose fear of die-hard fringe voters ensures a perpetual conservative bias, but with the more obscure citizens who participated in the Constitutional Convention.
The Constitutional Convention was a debating chamber composed of 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 party members and an independent chairperson that was tasked with finding workable resolutions on Constitutional reform in 2012.
While it was called into being by the current government with the mandate of debating certain topics (marriage equality among them), a cursory perusal of the Convention’s final recommendations reveals a population that is surprisingly progressive on many issues.
Pioneering suggestions to create a more equal country were put forth
The Convention’s recommendations included: giving citizens a say in the nomination process for Presidential candidates; changing the language of Article 41.2 (the ‘women in the home’ clause) to accommodate gender-neutrality; explicitly mandating gender equality; introducing citizen-initiated referenda; and replacing the law on blasphemy with a ban on incitement to religious hatred.
Perhaps most significantly of all, after completing its work in the areas explicitly assigned to it, to Convention moved on to tackle the thorny areas of Dáil reform and social, cultural and economic rights. In fact, the Convention recommended that rights to housing, essential healthcare and language usage be enshrined in the constitution.
The end result of all this work? The aforementioned referenda on same-sex marriage and Presidential eligibility.
Fobbed off with ‘equality-lite’
The Government has not even responded to the Convention’s submissions on social and economic rights (despite that response being nearly a year overdue), and changes to the ‘women in the home’ clause – approved by 98% of Convention members – has been siphoned off to a task force.
Apparently, the idea of a male householder or female breadwinner is so novel as to require further examination before something as groundbreaking as gender-neutral language could possibly be put before the very people who have long been living the reality of personal choice.
Therefore, while same-sex couples will likely and rightly be allowed to marry in future, they will still live under an archaic Constitutional provision that explicitly assigns them a lifelong gender role. One can only wonder whether post-marriage equality referendum the Government intends to recognise both partners in a female same-sex marriage as deserving protection for their ‘life within the home’ and neither partner in a male same-sex relationship.
If this sort of musing sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is – and this ludicrous state of affairs arises from the piecemeal action that is being taken on the many not only entrenched but actually legally mandated forms of inequality and discrimination present in our society.
Marriage equality is not the end but the beginning of reform
A referendum process that enjoins public discussion on all of the Convention’s recommendations is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bringing our legal system up to speed with the needs of a modern society.
The members of the Constitutional Convention recognised this: every last one of them voted in favour of a second Constitutional Convention, citing the need to delve into environmental protection, Seanad and local government reform, the separation of church and State and other important issues.
However, far from pushing forward, the agenda for progressive innovation seems to have lost its verve, as the political parties focus solely on cheerleading what they now know is going to be a popular referendum to the exclusion of all else. In other words, the upcoming referenda are becoming an exercise in substituting a part of the reform package for the whole.
Equal marriage rights should be but one vital part of a national effort to address social and material equality on a broader scale – one that honours the recommendations put forward by the Convention. After all, those recommendations are the closest approximation we have of the will of the people. As such, surely they at least deserve to be put to a vote.
When it comes to equality, let’s not sell ourselves cheaply.
Vote yes on 22 May, but demand more.
Roslyn Fuller holds a PhD in International Law from Trinity College, Dublin. Her books include Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective (2013) and The Democracy Delusion (2015). She will stand as an Independent Candidate for the constituency of Dublin Fingal in the next general election. She tweets @roslynfuller.