Is it defamatory to accuse opponents of same sex marriage of homophobia? Or are they fairly exercising their consciences in declining to recognise equality with heterosexuals? Irish Times columnists are on opposite sides of an argument which is part of the Republic’s slow emergence into the modern era. Sadly though the columnists haven’t gone head to head over it yet; let’s hope they do. The issue arose when John Waters and Breda O’Brien, both Irish Times columnists as it happens, and members of the Iona Institute which campaigns for traditional values, were paid a total of 85,000 euros for comments made about them by drag artist Rory O’Neill aka Miss Panti on RTE’s Saturday Night Show. RTE paid out the money rather than get embroiled in a lengthy and even more expensive legal battle. So much for the defence of free speech by Ireland’s national broadcaster. One of the beneficiaries Breda Power gives a familiar reply “it wasn’t the money it was the inadequacy of a right of reply without an apology.” So much for the defence of free speech by a name writer who like Waters enjoys the privilege of making her case in the public multimedia .
In his column Fintan O’Toole carefully concedes good faith to his colleagues but magnificently declares it irrelevant.
Sincerity is irrelevant here as malevolence – it simply doesn’t matter why people uphold structures of discrimination. Throughout history, decent, moral people have believed with complete sincerity that slavery is a moral good, that women are lesser beings who must be protected from their weakness by being obedient to men, that Jews should be confined to ghettoes, that the Irish are incapable of rational thought, that Catholics are unfit to live in democracies and so on..
It’s good that most of those who oppose gay marriage love and respect and cherish individual gay people, though they should hardly expect a pat on the back for not hating their fellow citizens. But they need to recognise that that’s not enough. The whole point of the law is that it’s not about giving people equal status because you like them. It’s about freeing people from subjection to the arbitrariness of other people’s benevolence.
How much better it would have been to have argued the toss. O’Toole’s argument applies to the disagreement of John Larkin ( never slow to seek out a target) with the terms of the Supreme Court’s finding against Christian hoteliers who refused to give a gay couple a bed for the night in Bull &Hall (as reported by Alan.) The conclusion is that these people may or may not be homophobes but they are no longer free to exercise their consciences at the expense of others. The issue is not whether there are other hotels but whether gays should suffer the indignity of discrimination – whether direct or indirect. But tread carefully before you accuse discriminators of homophobia – even if you find the distinction with prejudice hard to understand. It’s not much of a discovery to learn that both parts of Christian Ireland are stronger on social conservatism than the heathen English even in the highest court in the kingdom.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London