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Opinion: Marriage equality isn't a foregone conclusion – there's no room for complacency

Opinion polls may show increasing support for marriage equality, but I still regularly observe open, brutal and honest homophobia.

Donal O'Keeffe

WITH SUCCESSIVE OPINION polls showing increasing support (80% last time I looked) for marriage equality, those of us in favour can, presumably, shut up shop now. Everything is grand. Just 21 years since being gay was actually a crime in Ireland, we now live in a liberal paradise where love and tolerance trump hatred and ignorance every time.

Right?

Well, I live in a small town in Cork and I regularly observe open, brutal and honest homophobia. Mention of marriage equality in the pub would probably start a riot. (It nearly did recently, when I challenged the phrase “And then they’ll be adopting children and turning them queer too.”)

I suspect that my area of Beyond The Pale Ireland is no more backward than any other part of the country and I doubt I’m the only person who sees David McSavage’s Homophobic Barman sketch as straight (sorry) reportage. I’m convinced polling on marriage equality is very soft indeed. Not that you’d know that in the more fashionable corners of Twitter, where my liberal friends and I shoot the breeze and drink complicated coffees.

‘People don’t seem to realise how difficult this will be to win’

I spoke this week to, amongst others, Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. “There are a lot of hearts and minds to be won over yet,” he admits. “I would be worried that people don’t seem to realise how difficult this will be to win, and if it is won, it will only be won by a very narrow margin.

“Even if you’re 90% convinced to vote Yes, 10% doubt could make you vote No. And I think campaigners have to realise that if you are not 100% on board, that does not make you a bigot or a homophobe, it just means that you have some convincing to go yet. I think we have to engage respectfully.”

Civil partnerships taking place up and down the country are a great advertisement for the “normalisation” of marriage equality, Ó Ríordáin says. “Those against will say that this will lead to something. What we are saying is that this will give Constitutional recognition to existing partnerships, existing family units, existing relationships.”

With Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin pledging to campaign strongly for a Yes vote, cross-party support does send a very powerful signal to LGBT people but, as with any other referendum, there will inevitably be an anti-Government vote and anti-Government sentiment may also affect turn out. A year (or less) from an election, some TDs, especially those sharing a constituency with a party colleague/enemy, may shy from being associated with what is to many older, more conservative voters (voters who actually vote), a contentious issue.

Opinion polls

It’s worth remembering that opinion polls ahead of the Children’s Rights Referendum showed support at 73%. Few would have predicted from that the eventual, pathetic 33% turnout. It’s also worth recalling that the Children’s Rights Referendum saw an eleventh hour hijacking by way-out-there extremists. What if they stage a similar intervention in this campaign? What if they, at the last minute, parade a child abuse case with a gay inference? You know well they’re capable of it. Are we prepared to fight that?

There’s also the fact that the impression that this is a done deal could well result in people who are well-disposed toward marriage equality not bothering to vote. I think we need to get people thinking about what it says about equality in Ireland and what it says about us if this referendum doesn’t pass. I also think that we need to create a whole new constituency of voters by ensuring that young people register en masse.

From a personal perspective, broadcasting requirements of ‘balance’ mean that I can predict I will be throwing radios and televisions out of windows on a regular basis over the next year. That said, I suspect the reason extremist opinion is all you can get to publicly oppose marriage equality is that there really is no reasonable argument against it. Given the recent BAI ruling on ‘balance’, though, I can picture the Late Late Show researcher saying “Before you go on, you’re not gay by any chance, are you? ‘Cause if you are, we have the Iona Institute on speed-dial.”

Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer calls this referendum “a once in a generation chance”, saying that while there is no room for complacency, opinion polls do offer “a heartening insight” into a growing acceptance of LGBT people in Ireland.

Buttimer believes that equality is not just an issue for LGBT people but rather something which everyone should feel is important. “This can’t just be about LGBT people. We need supporters and allies to come on board too. Now, obviously the five members of the Oireachtas who are gay can’t just be passive participants but we need every single friend we have too.”

Our opportunity to embrace love 

I suggested to him that civil partnerships have had the effect of making LGBT people more visible in Irish society and that this in turn has had a very positive effect. As Rory O’Neill, aka Panti, put it, it’s a lot less easy to be homophobic when you actually know someone who just happens, by one facet of their personality, to be gay. “That’s the point. If you look at me, or Donal Óg Cusack, or Derek Mooney, or whoever, it’s just one part of who we are. It’s not the complete who you are, but it’s a part of who you are. The important thing for people to realise is that we’re exactly the same as they are, with the exception that we were born gay.”

And, surely, that’s the entire point of marriage equality: this is our opportunity to show the world that we consider LGBT people the exact equal of every other Irish person, as ordinary and as extraordinary as every other citizen. This is our chance to persuade ourselves that we are open, generous and kind. What else is marriage about, anyway, except love? In an Ireland which has often been a very cruel and harsh place, love is something we should surely welcome and celebrate and – yes – enshrine in our Constitution.

I also spoke with Rory O’Neill. Although taking nothing for granted, he is optimistic for the referendum. “I think the Irish electorate is inherently fair-minded, and has come a long way on this issue. I’m very hopeful for the country as a whole, and not just for LGBT people.”

As I drink my pint in my corner of Beyond The Pale Ireland, I really hope Panti is right.

BAI says Mooney Show was wrong to broadcast programme supporting same-sex marriage

“They picked the wrong drag queen”: The power of Panti’s call

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