Analysis: Irish government accused over gay unions defeat

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Legislation proposed by the Irish Labour Party designed to recognise, amongst other things gay marriages, failed in country’s Parliament due to a lack of Government support.

Celine Casey, a former Parliamentary researcher at the Dáil Éireann, explores the background to the defeat and the future for gay rights laws in Ireland.

The Civil Unions Bill 2006 was debated last week by in Parliament was well received by all political parties represented.

Yet the Government managed to postpone the Bill by a further six months.

The Government argued that the proposed Bill was vulnerable to constitutional challenge and that it should be postponed pending the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court in the Zappone case.

A lesbian couple, Drs Katherine Zappone and Anne Louise Gilligan lodged an appeal with the country’s Supreme Court in earlier this month challenging the High Court’s decision that their Canadian marriage is not valid.

Speaking to from Dublin, the spokesperson on Justice for the Labour Party, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who introduced the Bill, said: “This was a con by the government using procedural amendments to postpone this Bill by six months to avoid having to pass this important piece of legislation before the new government is elected in June.

“The Bill has therefore failed, but if this party is represented in the new government, the Bill will be on our agenda”

Elections are scheduled for July this year at the latest. The ruling Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition have been in power since 1997.

Whilst homosexuality was formally decrimilised in the Republics of Ireland in 1993, at present individuals in same-sex relationships or cohabiting straight people do not enjoy the same legal status as those within the traditional marriage relationship under Irish Law.

Adam Long, Communications Officer Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) told “I feel that the effective defeat of the Labour’s Civil Unions Bill was a missed opportunity. It represented significant progress towards achieving the full equality outcome of marriage and would have had an immediate positive impact on the status of same-sex couples in Ireland”.

The Government’s Minister for Justice Mr Michael McDowell insists that the Government fully accepts that same-sex couples, and other cohabiting couples, require heightened legal protection.

He argues however that any legislative reform in this area must be fully consistent with the provisions of the Irish constitution and in particular the State’s constitutional duty to protect with special cares the institution of marriage.

Mr McDowell insists that the government is unequivocally in favour of treating gay and lesbian people as fully equal citizens in Irish society, but giving effect to this principle in legislative is necessarily complex and challenging.

In the United Kingdom, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 provides for registration of exclusively same-sex civil partnerships in an institution broadly equivalent to marriage, which the proposed Bill purports to replicate.

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He told the Dáil during last week’s debate that the Labour-proposed bill falls short of The United Kingdom Act, which is a comprehensive piece of legislation, and would be unlikely to survive constitutional challenge in its current form.

Members of the public in Ireland were overwhelming disappointed that the Bill did not pass.

Gareth Kelly told “The Government should have taken this opportunity to allow gay couples equal rights, but has opted to take a side door to avoid the subject in question.

“They are making it more difficult over here than in other countries, such as Spain where they just went ahead and passed legislation without difficulty. Passing this Bill will make it easier for young people to make their status know in society. You will be surprised how many people in Ireland will be taken back by the display of affection between two people of the same sex.”

Being a member of the European Union, Ireland is challenged to change its social values amongst a socially and economically diverse community.

The wave of the Celtic Tiger has transformed Irish society in financial terms but has Irish society really moved forward in terms of social diversity?

There seems to be an argument made by the Government in its debate against the proposed Bill that Ireland has done so by the introduction of legislation such at The Employment Equality Act 1998 and The Equal Status Act 2000, which forbid discrimination on nine distinct grounds, which include marital status, family status and sexual orientation.

However, these are anti discrimination legislation, which falls short of affording equal legal status to gay couples.

By not affording such status, gay couples remain not only affected socially, but economically, as their civil partnerships or marriage are not recognised under legislation such as tax laws as seen in recent developments such as in the Zappone case.

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