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.

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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