Jul 8, 2010

Civil partnerships – Ireland’s answer to gay marriage

I have a new post up on Global Comment

“Will you partner me civilly?” is a question thousands of Irish people may be able to ask their same sex partner next year. It does not have the same ring as the more conventional phrase, but what it lacks in tradition it makes up in ambiguity.
While a civil partnership does not confer equality or full civil rights, but it shuffles in the right direction. The State will finally recognise the existence of gay and lesbian relationships. True equality, however, would involve gay marriage, adoption rights, and a host of other changes to existing legislation, which are not part of the Civil Partnership Bill.

There are many positive aspects of the Civil Partnership Bill. Financial arrangements will be more in line with the standard marriage contract. Partners will be able to benefit from the other’s pension rights. Joint income will be recognised when calculating tax benefits and a civil partner may be named on the other’s travel pass for the over 65s. Partners may now claim rights in areas such as inheritance, social welfare and a shared home.

After the Bill is passed in the Senate and has the autograph of the President For Life, gay marriages, civil partnerships and civil marriages from other jurisdictions will be recognised in Irish law. Recognised as civil partnerships that is, provided that the Minister for Justice approves of the legislation of the state in question. He has thirty days to rule on the decision.

However, there are significant gaps in the legislation, particularly with regard to the rights of children and adoption. The Irish Constitution regards the family “as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State” (Art. 41.1.1) but the legislation does not confer family status on same sex couples. As a result, you can love and care for the child of your partner from the moment of hir birth but you have no legal relationship with that child. You cannot adopt your own child. You cannot visit your child in hospital without the express permission of the bio parent. You probably will not even be permitted to attend parent-teacher meetings. If your partner predeceases you, your child loses both hir parents.

At some point in the future, there will be a referendum on the rights of the child, and perhaps the children of gay and lesbian couples will receive their rights at that point. For now, they remain in legal limbo.

Anything that is remotely connected with Catholicism brings out the extremist element in Irish society. Catholic extremists never seem to remember that Leviticus is in the Old Testament and that marriage predates Christianity. The hatemongers mount protests and engage in threatening behaviour outside the parliament.

Statements about the sanctity of marriage are hurled at passersby and politicians alike. There is a lot of gobbledegook about the special status of marriage and how civil partnership will destroy it. Re-interpretations of the words of Jesus Christ are being flung dunglike at an innocent public, distorting and misrepresenting words of a great social revolutionary.

In a desperate attempt to remain relevant, the Irish bishops have jumped on the bandwagon and released a pamphlet on why marriage matters. It is misleading and seeks to undermine the legislation while superficially ‘supporting’ gay and lesbian coupes. Perhaps, their contribution to the debate was to distract from the revelations of child abuse by any means necessary. Maybe the Catholic bishops have spotted the irony of the Church defending morality. However, all their words simply reassure the extremist elements of the congregations and alienate the majority.

Everywhere backbenchers sniff the wind, ever wary of controversy and potential elections. They whisper in the ears of party colleagues, perhaps make a few “no offense…” ‘jokes’ to test the lay of the land. The Government, which consistently leans into the prevailing wind, found “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. In much the same way as the troublesome issues in the past, the Government equivocated, side stepped the issues and proved once again that some Irish people are more equal than others.

One positive outcome of the protests and whisperings is the refusal of the Minister for Justice to allow for a conscience clause. Such a clause was proposed by an opposition deputy but as Junior Minister at the Department of Finance, Martin Mansergh said

My view is that if one takes up a public appointment, one must carry out the duties that the law prescribes and those duties will change from time to time as the law changes. We should not give sanction effectively to homophobia for conscientious reasons

Public servants will not have the right to ‘morally’ object to performing civil partnership ceremonies. The notion of including such a clause would be impractical as well as ethically wrong. Imagine the precedent such a clause would require. Claims for moral injury by public servants would spread like blight.

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