A man walks past a polling station in Dublin. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.