Against the deployment of the ‘homophobia’ word in the marriage equality debate…

So, An Taoiseach announced in his Prime Time interview last night that same sex marriage is “a question that will be put very clearly to the people. I expect it will be on 22 May.”

That’s a reference to the fact that to get through any statute allowing same sex marriage that poor battered book of basic rules (aka the Irish Constitution) has to be amended by Referendum.

Now if the polls are anything to go by, it should be a walk in the park. Left to their own devices and instincts, even some of the most socially conservative of Irish folk are minded to let this one go through on the nod.

It was famously the case in the first divorce referendum when a week beforehand, the polls suggested there was a latent 2/3 majority in favour of granting the right to citizens of the Republic to divorce. One Bishop’s letter and less than a week later, and the numbers flipped rather spectacularly.

It was to be another nine years before a divorce referendum was won and brought in as the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and ten before it made it onto the statute books.

It may be true that the Bishop’s powers of persuasion are not what they once were. The imperative has passed to well matched and intellectually fit secular groupings like the Iona Institute.

Given this government’s record of losing what have been often seemingly fairly straightforward Amendments to the Constitution, the Taoiseach’s promise to back the proposal to the hilt means little in terms of its likelihood to pass.

But it is significant in another respect. The Taoiseach and many other of those in the Dail and Seanad who support equality in marriage, come from a socially conservative background.

As such, there’s a lot more work to it than just winning or losing a populist referendum campaign, not least because Article 41 which deals with the family gives such a loose and yet highly prescribed definition of what the family actually is.

The late arrival of primary legislation in the form of a Child and Family Relationships Bill – by definition a heavyweight piece of legislation, as you can tell from its general schema – won’t help matters, not least because it offers an alternative framework for the campaign.

Point one in Paul Evans’s famously lucid argument against referendums in a parliamentary democracy:

Referendums are often a framing exercise. We often don’t want either of the options we’re being asked to adopt, preferring one that isn’t on the ballot.

Given the tight timetable for the legislation, the Child and Family Relationships Bill may allow critics to amplify messages around adoption and other child related marriage rather than focusing on the universal civil right to marriage: ie the Yes lobby’s strongest suite.

This is likely to lead to a very tough and very dirty fight indeed. Article 41 may well deserve all the liberal contempt Fintan O’Toole can throw at it, but it’s far from a solid base from which to prosecute a winning campaign.

Long time advocate Ivana Bacik warned last night about complacency amongst yes campaigners. But focus may be the problem in holding together the broad coalition necessary to get this one over the line.

Even with the campaign barely begun there is clearly tension and impatience with the incoming anti gay rhetoric from the No side, as this piece from Tomboktu demonstrates:

…the explicit homophobia in the broader debate needs to be challenged, even if that means modifying a commitment to be positive and an intention to focus only on the referendum. However much GLEN, Marriage Equality and the ICCL may not like it, the question of children is now part of the debate. We saw on Saturday that we cannot depend on straight allies to expose the homophobia, but if it is left unchallenged, it will damage the Yes campaign.

Whilst that sense of outrage is  perfectly understandable given the hard won experience of many out gay and lesbians, red mist alone is not likely to give rise to an optimum campaign. Crudely put, this a campaign to get 50% + 1 of the Irish population to vote the measure in.

As Ruarai has noted of Andrew Sullivan’s clarion essay for the New Republic back in 1993:

[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority.

The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.”

The humanising of the gay experience has to start where almost all gay life begins: ie, within the quintessentially conservative context of the family. Most Irish people understand this implicitly.

As the far from radical Mary O’Rourke has noted, most objections have faded as it has become clear that gay people are not alien, but already an integral to their families and wider social networks.

These conservatively minded folk are the very people, if they are not alienated by the indiscriminating broad brush of homophobic taint, who will help to carry this referendum and help open new chapter in the developing inner social life of the Irish nation.

Keeping such a broad coalition on board will need not just simple forbearance (and it will take that and more), but a clear eyed on the nature and quality of the prize at stake.

And the opportunity for Ireland to begin (yet again) to live up to its founding ambitions as a state and learn to properly cherish all the children of the nation equally.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty