Southern Irish society and politics and the referendum on gay marriage

imagesNB: This article was posted on April 7, but has been updated several times since.

by Philip Ferguson

It looks very likely that on May 22 the south of Ireland will become the first country in the world in which people have voted for gay marriage.  That day, there is a referendum on gay marriage, the wording of which is that an amendment be made to the constitution of the state that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.  All the main political parties and well as over 75% of voters, according to opinion polls, support the amendment which looks sure to pass.

Cops at Henry Street station in Limerick smile while they stand behind a rainbow flag with local Gay Pride 2014 organisers. The police station, on their own initiative, flew the flag on the day of the Limerick Pride festival last year. Most of the establishment now embraces gay rights.

The referendum is a mark of how much has changed in the south of Ireland over the past generation.  In particular of how liberal attitudes around sex and sexuality are now in the ascendant and the Catholic Church hierarchy – and in Ireland the Catholic hierarchy have always been especially reactionary – are on the defensive, their power diminished and their claim to some imaginary moral high ground much reduced as a result of the mass of scandals which has enveloped the church in recent decades.  These scandals have partly been the result of the secularisation of the society making it possible to challenge the church, and the challenges and exposures in turn speeding up the secularisation of the society.

As an April 23 editorial on the Irish Voice site notes, “In the old days a belt of the bishop’s crozier was enough to silence even the most liberal of politicians. Now they could be belted all day but it would have nothing like the same impact.”  (See here.)

One of the signs of the sea-change in southern Irish society is the wide political consensus in support of equal marriage rights.  For instance, while a position in support of marriage equality is not at all surprising from Sinn Fein, Labour and the Greens, it is now firmly supported by traditionally the two biggest and most socially conservative parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

It’s certainly interesting to see that Fine Gael have a leaflet out supporting gay marriage – it’s headed Vote YES, Equality for Everybody – while (supported by Labour) viciously attacking working class communities with household and water taxes, police assaults and raids and doing its damnedest to widen the economic gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Origins of conservatism in southern state

Both those parties date back to the struggle for independence and subsequent civil war.  Fine Gael is the successor party to Cumann na nGaedheal, the party established by the section of the independence movement – Sinn Fein and the IRA – that supported the 1921 deal with Britain that partitioned Ireland and sold out the struggle for national liberation.  Cumann na nGaedheal administered the new southern neo-colonial state and carried out vicious repression during a civil war against those who continued to uphold the principle of Irish self-determination.

Because a majority of the independence movement opposed the deal, the new state was not only repressive but, lacking sufficient popular support to establish its legitimacy beyond doubt, turned to the Catholic Church for endorsement.  The Church began excommunicating republicans and threw its full weight beyond the new neo-colonial state.  In exchange the Church was given a substantial amount of power.  The new state also had to put back in the box all the oppressed sections of Irish society which had begun asserting their demands during the independence struggle.  The Church was useful for putting women back in the box, for instance.

The Catholic family, with its strict gender roles, was held up as the model.  Divorce was banned, along with contraception.  Women were pressured back into the home and out of public life.  (During the republican struggle a big chunk of Irish women got actively involved and began bursting out of their allocated domestic sphere.)  The anti-gay laws which were from the period of British rule, the time when British law applied across the whole of Ireland, were maintained.

Fianna Fail was established in 1925 by a section of the independence movement which broke away from Sinn Fein and the IRA.  Its founding leader was Eamon De Valera, who had been a commandant in the 1916 Rising and was named first president of the Republic declared in January 1919 after Sinn Fein swept the elections in Ireland and established an independent parliament in Dublin, breaking with Britain and Westminster.  Among its other leaders were a number of prominent figures from the left wing of the independence movement, particularly women such as Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn and Kathleen Clarke.  Fianna Fail was denounced by the Catholic hierarchy as “communists”, however De Valera was a social conservative and, over time, the party was reshaped in his image.

Conservatism strengthened by both major parties

As Cumann na nGaedheal became increasingly discredited over the course of the 1920s, due to its repression, its obvious subordination to British imperialism, and its laissez-faire economics during the Depression, Fianna Fail prepared for power.  It won the 1932 elections, and won the largest number of votes and seats in every general election between then and 2011.  As it took over the role of running the southern Irish neo-colonial state, due to the discrediting and disintegration of Cumann na nGaedheal, it made peace with the Catholic Church.  In fact, De Valera’s 1937 Constitution gave the Catholic Church a specifically privileged position in that society and the Catholic family was enshrined in law as the ‘norm’.

The defeated Cumann na nGaedheal merged with the Irish fascist movement (the Blueshirts) and a party of big farmers to form Fine Gael.

The south now had two big parties to uphold the interests of the local ruling class, the Catholic Church and British imperialism.  But it was Fianna Fail, which had the bigger social base because of its more republican roots, which was of most use to the Catholic Church and which itself found the Catholic Church most useful for maintaining social control over its potentially rather unruly base of workers, small farmers and republican-minded small businesspeople.

The upholding of the Catholic model of a family unit meant that women were forbidden to work in the civil service after marriage and women could not serve on juries.  Contraception didn’t become available to all until 1984 and, even then, it was difficult to obtain in rural areas and even in parts of the main cities.  Married men could legally rape their wives until 1991.

In the 1960s, Fine Gael began toying with the idea of social democracy.  It began trying to attract middle class liberals to its new self-image as a progressive party.  There were always serious limits to its liberalism, however.  Firstly, it was the most blatantly pro-imperialist of the two main parties, so when it next got into government (with Labour, 1973-77), that government was noted far more for political censorship and police repression than for any progressive social reforms.

Catholic Church and social reactionaries

Meanwhile the Catholic Church, which had been given a large degree of control over the education and health systems, had well-organised lay networks to defend and push its anti-women, anti-gay, socially-reactionary politics.  These forces mobilised in the 1980s to get the drop on anyone who might want to liberalise laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality.

In 1983 the social reactionaries managed to get and win a referendum for a constitutional ban on abortion through an amendment to the 1937 Constitution.  The benefit of a constitutional ban for the reactionaries was that parliament could not then legislate for more liberal abortion law.  To alter the constitutional ban on abortion would require both houses of the Oireachtas (parliament) to approve an amendment, for the liberalising amendment to then go to a referendum and then, if passed, be signed into law by the president.  The reactionaries counted on the Church and other repressive institutions and social forces being able to mobilise their social base and put the fear of God and lord knows what else into the mass of the population.

Back then, Labour was still socially reactionary and, with a few notable examples, most prominent Labourites did not publicly oppose the anti-abortion extremists.  The main groups opposing the constitutional ban were from the republican tradition – Sinn Fein and the Workers Party (a formerly republican organisation which had moved into Moscow’s orbit) – plus the main representative body of the Protestant churches in the south.

Referenda: from wins for reactionaries to wins for progress

In 1987 a referendum to allow divorce was lost.  Indeed only 36.5% of those voting in it supported a liberalisation of the divorce law.  That referendum perhaps marked the last point at which the social reactionaries were in command.

In 1992 the reactionaries tried to strengthen the constitutional ban on abortion by making sure that the danger of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy committing suicide would not enable her to get a legal abortion.  The reactionaries lost that, achieving only 34.6% of the vote.  (The Church’s position that suicidal women should be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term certainly revealed how the hierarchy’s position had nothing to do with “supporting the rights of the most vulnerable” – ie foetuses – and everything to do with oppressing and punishing women.)

Then came the “X Case”.  This involved the statutory rape of a minor and her going to Britain with her parents to access a termination.  At that point, life in the south of Ireland took on a surreal character.  When the girl’s parents – she was 14 – approached the police to ask if they should bring back some foetal DNA for the prosecution of the rapist, the police responded that the girl could not travel to Britain for the termination as abortion was against the law in Ireland.

I remember the surrealism of the time, when cops seized 2,000 copies of the Guardian newspaper because it contained contact numbers and addresses for services in Britain providing abortion.  Then British telephone directories were removed from libraries in the south, as the phone directories contained the same information.  It was like living in some freaky parallel universe.  Clearly, however, no European government could maintain this situation.

Two new referenda votes were held quickly on the same day, December 23 1992.  These comfortably upheld the right to travel to another country for a termination (62.4% for, 37.6% against) and the right to information about abortion (59.9% for, 40.1% against).

Four years later, in 1996, the right to divorce was very narrowly won (50.3% to 49.7%), despite the Catholic Church and their minions conducting a well-financed campaign of scare tactics and blackmail of their flocks.  The tide was going out for the Church and its ability to impose its bigoted, backward, self-serving, anti-human social views on the mass of the population.

Weakening of power of Catholic hierarchy

Over the rest of the 1990s, and since, the Catholic Church was hit by a massive series of sexual and other abuse scandals.  The exposure of priests raping children on a rather large scale, and nuns and priests physically assaulting and abusing children, along with scandals like the Magdalen laundries, where ‘wayward’ young women were virtually work slaves of nuns, both reflected and reinforced the fact that southern Irish society was modernising and secularist forces were growing.

The reality was that more and more young people were having sex before marriage and, because of the difficulties of obtaining contraception, teenage pregnancies were rife; marriages were breaking up and people were forming new relationships and having children in them; and people were having sex with members of the same gender.

When the Catholic reactionaries bang on about children in same-sex unions not having a “normal” upbringing, it just sounds increasingly odd.  As the Irish Voice editorial notes of these reactionaries, “What constitutes normal anymore in a land where divorce and single mothers abound is not explained.”

Moreover, not only do crozier-wielding bishops have much less authority – and scare power – these days, their lay shock troops have neither the numbers nor influence they once did.  As the same editorial reports, “The days when quasi-church spokespeople could ordain how people live their private lives is long gone.”

One of the major signs of the erosion of the power of the Catholic hierarchy is falling church attendances.  Well into the 1970s around 90% of people in the south stated they attended Mass once a week.  By 2012 a survey by the Association of Catholic Priests suggested it might have fallen to just 35% and be even lower in urban areas and among younger Irish people.

The litany of people and institutions supporting a ‘yes’ vote is also indicative of how much has changed.  Irish rugby icon Brian O’Driscoll, Irish soccer team captain Robbie Keane, crooner Daniel O’Donnell, the police federation, the devoutly Catholic former two-term Irish president Mary McAleese and TV host/broadcaster Gay Byrne are among those calling for people to vote ‘yes’. The Gaelic Players Association, which represents 2,300 male hurling and Gaelic football players at county level called for a ‘yes’ vote after a ballot of their members showed a massive 85% in favour of gay marriage.  Of 220 members of the lower and upper houses of the southern state’s parliament, only ten have clearly come out for a ‘no’ vote.   The ‘yes’ campaign is massively more visible – it has more people out on the streets, more leaflets and probably better funding, despite the ‘no’ campaign getting money from fundamentalist Christian sources in the US in a display of ecumenical solidarity of bigots.  Even the bigots atop the Catholic Church in Ireland have been rather coy in the way they are supporting a vote against marriage equality.

Archaic laws become a problem and get changed

One of the big problems for the ruling class in the south in recent decades is that archaic laws and rules were practically impossible to police and created nightmares for the state.  For instance, take the case of marital breakdown where people formed new relationships and had more children.  These children were, in Catholic moral teaching and in law, “bastards”.  And if the people got divorces in Britain and remarried there, they were officially bigamists in Ireland.  An unsustainable situation. Indeed, recent research by the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute shows that one-third of families in the south of Ireland don’t fit the traditional Catholic model of a heterosexual married couple in their first (and only) marriage.

Feudal-like laws, such as those in line with Catholic ‘moral’ teaching’, simply couldn’t be made to fit a modern, capitalist society.  As Marx and Engels pointed out nearly 170 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism continually revolutionises the institutions and ideas of society and “all that is solid melts into air”.  In the south of Ireland this happened with laws and practices – and even institutions – which once seemed set in stone.  New, modernised, more effective, less blatant, forms of social control then come on the agenda.

In 1993, the Dublin parliament legalised homosexuality.  By this stage, the Church was so embroiled in scandal that it decided not to put up a fight.  (Moreover, the Church’s attitude was always somewhat ambivalent.  On the one hand, homosexuality was quite widespread in the Church; on the other hand, it was vigorously condemned by the Church as a perversion and abomination.)  The law change in 1993 actually allowed for a lower age of consent than in Britain – it made the age of consent for gay sex the same as for straight sex.  In one bound, it caught up with and overtook Britain, where homosexual law reform had been implemented in 1967.

Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed in employment, vocational training, advertising, collective agreements, the provision of goods and services by the Employment Equality Act, 1998 and the Equal Status Act, 2000.

In July 2010, the southern parliament passed civil unions legislation.  Gay individuals, including those involved in gay relationships can adopt, but gays as a couple can’t.  However, this changed with new legislation being brought forward before the May referendum.  By the end of March the new adopting and parenting legislation had been adopted by both houses of the southern parliament.

Equal marriage rights is thus the logical corollary of wider social developments in Ireland over the past 20-25 years.

Should there be a referendum on gay marriage?

Perhaps because of this, some human rights advocates have argued there is no need for a referendum.  Instead, the parliament can simply pass legislation allowing same-sex couples the right to marry.  For instance, progressive legal academic Eoin Daly has suggested, “In this environment, one would expect that, in a functioning democracy, this groundswell of support for same-sex marriage might naturally put legislative reform in motion. Alas, the Constitution has been dubiously invoked, yet again, as an overarching fetter upon political choice. The Government claims that legalising same-sex marriage requires a constitutional amendment and therefore, a referendum – that the Oireachtas (the combined two houses of parliament – PF) is bereft of any power to substantially reform the institution of marriage. I think that this is not only wrong and misguided as a point of constitutional interpretation – it is also symptomatic of a deeper dysfunctionality in the relationship between politics and constitutional discourse.”

I think, however, a referendum is a good idea.  Democrats and progressives should have no fear of letting the mass of people vote on all significant issues of public policy.  We’re not elitists who believe that the masses can’t really be trusted and it should be left to professional politicians to sort out.  Who people should and should not be able to marry is a social question and society should decide, not a few hundred legislators, some of whom are elected only every 4-5 years and some of whom (the upper house) are never elected by the general public.

The referendum also allows all the arguments to be heard.  The bigots can’t be defeated by just invoking institutions of the state, like the parliament.  Their arguments need to be answered in the public domain and defeated there.  Moreover, even with all the limits of bourgeois democracy, a vote means the public has an investment in the decision.  A substantial majority in favour of the right of gay women and men to marry is a far bigger victory than simply a vote in parliament.  And being invested in the result, because it was made by popular vote, means the population are far less likely to accept any future attempts to roll back what they decided on.

A referendum is also an opportunity for the left to make its own specific case for gay liberation, something which includes but goes much, much further than simply equal legal rights.

A law change without a referendum simply allows the anti-working class parliamentary majority to masquerade as progressive by passing legislation easing the burden on one section of the oppressed while continuing to screw over the big majority of the population, including working class gay women and men.

Another argument for a referendum is provided by taking a look at the six-county state.  Polls there show an overwhelming majority in favour of equal marriage rights regardless of the gender of the couple, yet the Northern Assembly on April 27 rejected the attempt by Sinn Fein to get equal marriage rights into law.  The Unionist parties voted overwhelmingly against it, while various SDLP and Alliance representatives, who had been mandated to vote in favour, simply didn’t show up, with the result that the Assembly voted 49-47 against.  I’m not a fan of Sinn Fein, but they did put forward the legislation and their Assembly members all voted for it.

The 49-47 vote in the Northern Assembly against equal marriage rights therefore voided public opinion; a referendum in the north would likely have been a victory for gay rights.  Moreover the political campaigning around the issue would have offered the opportunity to expose Protestant workers who support gay rights to just how bigoted the main Unionist parties they vote for are and had some potential to open up a few fissures in the Unionist cross-class bloc.

Political independence and class politics

It is important that the left not simply trail behind the sections of the establishment which are perfectly happy to have gay marriage enshrined in law because it costs them nothing, helps make them look good, fits in with where capitalism is currently at, tidies up an unsustainable existing legal situation, and helps draw a potentially rebellious section of the population (homosexuals) into ‘mainstream’ and ‘normal’ society.

The fact that the bulk of the southern Irish establishment now supports formal legal equality for gay women and men means there is simply no radical potential in campaigning for gay marriage as a human right in and of itself.  Indeed, as one (gay) opponent of gay marriage in Ireland notes, “actual homophobia already has a scarcely-threatening, almost antique quality to it.”

A left campaign, therefore, has to differentiate itself from the political trajectory of the ruling class.

A left campaign would orient to work in working class communities and emphasise that in order to liberate itself the working class has to take up the cause of human liberation in general and champion the rights of all oppressed sections of society.  Only by acting as the universal class – the class that represents the interests of humanity in general – can the working class free itself.

It would indicate that the ruling class is engaged in a ‘tidying up’ exercise, getting rid of outmoded laws and rules as part of a necessary clearing of the decks as it continues its assault on the working class.  (The one old, outmoded social practice that will be maintained and is not up for removal this side of a socialist revolution is the exploitation of labour by capital!)

The establishment has been happy to co-opt the gay community and much of the gay community has been up for being co-opted
The establishment has been happy to co-opt the gay community and much of the gay community has been up for being co-opted

Moreover, the changes that are in process represent a kind of domestication of the gay movement.  Gay activists are often keen to prove how little threat they pose to the existing social order; homosexuality is presented as just part of society’s rich diversity and it doesn’t matter if that society is capitalist.  This is a reflection of the fact that gay women and men belong to all classes and, as is so often the case, the people who have come to dominate gay politics and the “gay community” are middle class liberals.  They want to be integrated into the system rather than be part of challenging, let alone overthrowing, it.

The liberal hegemony in gay politics can only be challenged by the vigorous promotion of class politics, which necessarily includes challenging the whole notion of a “gay community” in which people’s sexuality gives them a commonality that trumps their diverse and conflicting material interests as members of specific classes.

Obstacles to winning

There are two factors that could get in the way of a victory for progress and freedom on May 22.  And one of them is that the Dublin 4 set – snooty liberals who look down on the mass of the Irish people as some kind of backward peasantry while they themselves imitate British imperialism’s hostility to the long struggle for Irish freedom – are closely associated with support for gay marriage.  This could well antagonise much of the rural vote.

The other potential problem is that while most people support gay marriage, it’s not like they regard it as a key issue that will drive them out to vote.  They will answer “yes” if asked by pollsters, but will they be motivated enough to go to the polls?  On the other hand, the opponents are religious zealots and their followers, and are likely to be more highly motivated.

Nevertheless, the support for gay marriage is so numerous and widespread it is highly unlikely the referendum will register a “no” victory.  More likely, it will be a solid victory but not around the level that the polls indicate at present.

Importance of fighting for secularism and modernisation

A left campaign on the issue should also link gay liberation with women’s liberation, pointing to the need to overturn the constitutional ban on abortion through a struggle for women’s right to access safe, legal, free abortion.  (For the situation on abortion see here and here.)

If the left doesn’t campaign in this way, the establishment, with its long record of persecuting homosexuals, will come out looking good and their position will be strengthened.  Class exploitation and social oppression will have been successfully detached from each other.  The ruling class, for so long the beneficiary of all forms of oppression and exploitation, will have successfully modernised a society in which capital no longer requires formal laws and rules discriminating against homosexuals and women and the left, which has long fought for gay and women’s rights, will continue to be on the back foot.

This is especially important for republicans.  Ireland was always going to be modernised, some time, some way, by some social force.  The key questions were by whom and with what result.  In my view, there were two alternatives.  The pro-imperialist and anti-working class elements could bring about a top-down modernisation, helped along with a bit of a push from social movements below.  Or republicans could lead a struggle for modernisation from below, in effect a struggle for emancipation.

Republicans, however, too frequently proved reluctant to get on the wrong side of the Catholic Church in the south on issues other than the armed struggle against the Brits.  This was partly due to the fact that they had a hard enough time of it fighting the British in the north and both the northern and southern state apparatuses, without seeking a confrontation with the Church as well.  But it was also partly due to the fact that, after the defeats of the 1920s and 1930s, a layer of republicans somewhat reconciled themselves to the Church and its social-moral teachings, apart from on the question of political violence.  When a nearly-destroyed republican movement began to regroup and rebuild after World War 2, many of the new recruits were intensely Catholic and Cold War-era Catholic at that.

Although this changed in the 1960s, as the movement radicalised and secularised again politically, it failed to cleanse itself of religious influence.  By this, I don’t mean that it had to become atheist, but it did need to be entirely secular, and it wasn’t.  In recent years, the largest elements that failed to champion and campaign for an entirely secular society, the Provos, have become part of the new establishment in the north and are doing their best to join the establishment in the south.  The genuine socialist/left-republicans remain uncorrupted and uninterested in the rewards for those who sell out.

Today, as the revolutionary element on the Irish left, the republican left needs to prioritise fighting for the complete separation of church and state.  Historically, republicanism is – and was certainly founded as – a secular, modernising movement for the emancipation of the Irish masses.  It needs to fully embrace that perspective, modernising it from Wolfe Tone and the the era of the bourgeois-democratic revolution to today, the era of the socialist revolution.

For a brief comment on the outcome of the referendum, see Big victory for gay rights in Ireland

Further reading:

Marriage equality now a safe issue

Same-sex marriage: basic justice but no threat to the system

Same-sex marriage: an alternative gay liberation viewpoint 

Dunedin talk: will south of Ireland be first country to vote for gay marriage?


Comments are closed.