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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Chi Onwurah MP: I did not want to vote for Trident - but I did

I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral, but there is more to consider than that.

I did not want to vote for the renewal of Trident. I don’t like voting with the Tories, I don’t want to legitimise a dialogue of death and I’d much, much prefer to vote for investment in schools and education than weapons of mass destruction. 

The fact that I’d recently returned from a commemorating the Centenary of the Somme with veterans of the Tyneside Battalions  had highlighted, again, both the horror and the futility of war. 

As friends in Newcastle and colleagues in Parliament can testify, I spent the days leading up to the vote asking for views. I read constituents’ emails on the subject as well as the (many) briefings. I studied the motion  in detail and listened carefully to the arguments of colleagues who were voting against Trident. 

I did not want to vote for Trident. But I did. Why?

The first duty of Government is to protect its citizens. That is a duty I take very seriously. Like all of my colleagues on the Labour benches, I am committed to the twin goals of a safe and secure United Kingdom and a world free of nuclear weapons. In both 2010 and in 2015 I was elected on manifestos that pledged we would retain the minimum necessary nuclear deterrent, whilst at the same time working towards reducing and eradicating nuclear weapons. Last year, Party members reaffirmed that policy at conference. However the Leader of my party and some of my frontbench colleagues voted against that position. 

For me there were four key questions – cost, effectiveness, morality and making the world safer.

1. Cost

Whilst there is not enough transparency on cost, the SNP and Green Party estimates of  up to £200bn double count all kinds of in-service costs, most of which would also be applicable to  any conventional replacement.  The estimate of between £30 to 40bn over 35 years seemed to me most credible. And this does not include the benefits of the 30,000 jobs that depend on building submarines - either directly or in the supply chain - or the value to the engineering and manufacturing sector that they represent. That is why my union, Unite, backed renewal. That is why EEF, the manufacturing association, backed renewal. If Trident were not renewed, the money saved would not go on the NHS, no more than our EU membership fee will.  We are a very unequal nation, but we are also a rich one - we should be able to maintain our defence capability and invest in a welfare system and the NHS.  

2. Effectiveness 

I read many reports citing cyber insecurity and potential drone attacks, but the evidence convinced me that, whilst these threats are real, they are not (yet) such as to significantly undermine effectiveness overall. Like Lisa Nandy, I was concerned about the apparently openended nature of the commitment to nuclear weapons but the motion did also emphasise disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn’s argument that nuclear weapons were ineffective because they did not deter the Rwandan genocide,  I found more difficult to follow. 

3. Morality 

This was for me perhaps the strongest argument agains renewal. It is one rarely articulated. Many hide behind cost and effectiveness when they believe nuclear weapons are immoral. 

I am not a conscientious objector  but I have a great deal of respect for those who are, and I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral. 

But if you accept the concept of armed defence and believe in taking armed action to protect UK or global citizens, then the unilateral disarmament argument seems to resolve into 1) hiding behind the American deterrent 2) that it will make the world safer, or 3) that it doesn’t matter whether we end up in thermonuclear destruction as long as our hands are clean. The first and the third I do not accept.

4. A safer world

This was the question I ended up wrestling with.  Caroline Lucas’ argument that having nuclear weapons encourages other countries to use them would have been an excellent one to make back in 1948. The question now is not whether or not we have them -  we do -  but whether or not we get rid of them, unilaterally.

A world free of nuclear weapons needs countries like the UK to take a lead. It needs stability, balance, and a predictable pace of weapons reductions. It takes years of negotiations. I am proud of my party’s record on nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government was the first nuclear-armed power in the world to commit to the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. We made the decision to decommission all land and air launched missiles. We did it unilaterally, setting an example. But nobody followed.

Working with other countries in recent decades, we have halved our own nuclear stockpiles and the US and Russia have reduced their warheads from 60,000 to 16,000 and that is expected to halve again by 2022. The evidence is clear that multilateralism works, although this Government has yet to demonstrate its commitment. 

So would Britain declaring that it was not going to renew Trident make the world, and the UK, safer? Would it tend to stabilise or destabilise? I spent hours debating that. I considered Britain on the road to Brexit with a new Prime Minister with no plan and an absent Labour leader, Europe between fear of migration and disintegration, Russia at bay, the Turkey coup, Israeli-Iranian relations, the Republican party’s candidate for President and the reality that terrorist massacres are a regular feature all over the world. I thought about my constituents, would declaring that Labour was against Trident make them feel safer and more secure?

My conclusion was that it would not make the world more stable and it would not make my constituents feel more secure.

And so I voted.