A man walks past a polling station in Dublin. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
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Why are fringe groups allowed the same air-time as LGBT activists in the run-up to Ireland’s marriage equality referendum?

Under Irish broadcasting law, broadcasters cannot support marriage equality unopposed.

On 22 May this year, Ireland will decide via referendum whether it wants to amend its constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. As the vote approaches, a number of televised discussions involving politicians and LGBT activists sparring with representatives from religious groups have taken place, leaving many dismayed. To understand public discourse surrounding marriage equality in Ireland, one must consider Irish broadcasting law, and the country’s changing relationship with the Catholic church.

Section 42 of The Broadcasting Act of 2009 states that, when dealing with a subject that is to be decided via referendum, Irish television and radio stations are legally required to display “balance”. Specifically, programming must be “presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views”.

Ostensibly, the legislation sounds fair. However, in practice – because of a an almost complete absence of political opposition to same-sex Marriage – it means that with regard to all broadcast discussions concerning same-sex marriage, fringe religious groups are effectively entitled to the same air-time as LGBT activists, and media personalities are restricted in providing any endorsement. Controversially, prominent Irish broadcasters have been reprimanded for expressing unchallenged support for Marriage Equality.

Currently, under Irish broadcasting law, broadcasters cannot support marriage equality unopposed.

After decades of abuse scandals, the Catholic church finds itself discredited in Ireland. The reputation of the one true church of St Peter tarnished, swathes of Irish people now completely disregard the recommendations of priests and bishops. The Irish are turning their backs on the Church in record numbers: a 2012 poll found that Ireland is abandoning religion at a pace faster than almost every other country in the world.  

Now, with the church’s influence waning and Ireland’s marriage equality referendum looming, Catholic teaching is surreptitiously presented to the Irish public through devout representatives in the media.

Ireland’s primary opponents to Irish marriage equality are called “the Iona Institute”. The organisation is made up of (overwhelmingly right-wing Catholic) journalists and academics, and essentially functions as a sanitising filter through which the repeatedly disgraced Catholic Church’s teachings can now pass to the Irish electorate. Although the group presents a “secular case” against same-sex marriage, its website is littered with statements from Catholic hierarchy, and publicly endorses the right of businesses to decline service to patrons on religious grounds.

Despite its increasing contempt for the church, Ireland is still a more socially conservative country than its EU counterparts. Abortion is not permitted, unless a woman who wishes to obtain one can prove to a panel of three doctors that she is suicidal. Until 1993, homosexual acts were illegal. In 1995, the second time the country voted on it, divorce was legalised. While Irish society is not as religious as it once was, it still battles with internalised, quintessentially Catholic biases and prejudices.

Indeed, many of the social inequalities and injustices present in Ireland today are vestiges of a Catholic hegemony: “Catholic guilt”, a general, unarticulated antipathy toward a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, and institutionalised homophobia linger in the education system. The church still owns most of the schools in the country, and teachers can legally be dismissed for being gay, divorced, or an unwed parent.

And, it is with the familiarity of the remnants of a formerly hyper-Catholic Ireland in mind, that the Iona Institute presents its case against marriage equality.

The arguments made by the group rely on normative assumptions about gender, motherhood and fatherhood; that we should strive for “what’s best for children” – despite the evidence that children raised by same-sex couples do as well, if not better, than those raised by heterosexuals. For the Iona Institute, marriage is a unique and special institution because it involves heterosexual couples. During a recent interview concerning the implications of marriage equality, a patron of the group asked, incredulously, “Do you think we should change the constitution to allow grandmothers and their daughters to marry?

Over the past 18 months, in the time preceding the referendum, Irish people have been repeatedly reassured by the Iona Institute that “it’s not discrimination to treat different situations differently”.

Ireland has a history of removing conservative restrictions in its constitution by very small margins.  We voted to remove our constitutional ban on divorce by a margin of less than one per cent, and it has been postulated that the victory can partially be attributed to bad weather in conservative parts of the country on the day of voting. Worryingly, the latest polls suggest a decline in support for Same-Sex Marriage, and reluctance among a number of Irish people to whole-heartedly support Marriage Equality.

As our marriage equality referendum approaches, we, the Irish, find ourselves in a sort of Lacanian mirror phase: inundated with endless tales of the horrors of the crimes committed by church and state, we have come to realise that the hideous image before our eyes is in fact ourselves. Yet, as we turn to flee in terror, so appalled by the gaze of our merciless, unobscured reflection, the church, ever hysterical and desperate to maintain its power, continues to tell us of our pulchritude.

Paulie Doyle is a Dublin based writer and journalist

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Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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