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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.