Interview: Irish gay rights group takes on partnerships

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Ireland has come a long way since decriminalising homosexuality in 1993.

Last week the Republic of Ireland’s Minister of State for Equality, Sean Power, reiterated that legislation allowing same-sex civil partnerships will be introduced next year.

While ruling out gay marriage as unconstitutional, he did confirm that gay and straight co-habiting couples would get many spousal rights through the Civil Partnership Registration Scheme among them “tax, pensions, benefits and property, the right to apply for maintenance, and proceedings to terminate a civil partnership,” according to the Irish Times.

Meanwhile the much-anticipated case of Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, two lesbians seeking to have their Canadian marriage legally recognised in Ireland, is still waiting to go for appeal in the Irish Supreme Court after it was defeated in the High Court late last year.

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), an organisation set up in 1988 to work for decriminalisation, is pushing for full equality and inclusion for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Ireland, and protection from all forms of discrimination.

Operating strategically in partnership with mainstream organisations, GLEN has been at the heart of calls for new legislation, working closely with the government on their proposed bill, due for publication in March 2008.

Eoin Collins, GLEN’s Director of Policy Change, spoke to about the changing attitudes to gay people in Ireland.

“Over the past two years it’s been very interesting,” says Eoin. “We had the Taoiseach (Irish PM) opening our offices – he was one of the first heads of government in the world to do that.

“And we had an ongoing contact with the then Minister for Justice Equality and Law reform who set up a working group on domestic partnership to bring forward options for government on legislative reform.

“The working group reported last year and for same sex couples it reported just two options. Civil marriage and if not civil marriage, because of constitutional issues, then at least full civil partnership giving all the rights and responsibilities of legal marriage.

“That working group has framed a lot of the discussion on this, which is very useful.”

The issue of Ireland’s 1937 Constitution, which currently defines marriage as between a man and woman, has been a point raised in both the Zappone and Gilligan court case, and the Civil Union Bill. How important is it in relation to the legal recognition of same-sex partnership?

“There are lots of different perspectives,” believes Eoin. “In the past there have been an issue about marriage and some people not wanting to buy into that.

“Certainly it’s something that, to be honest, we felt from the very start. We are an equality organisation and that’s what we wanted, marriage is an equality issue.

“Now I think there is a lot of discussion about whether or not civil partnership is enough and whether we should be holding out for full civil marriage.

“Certainly from our perspective we want civil marriage but we think something very serious, full civil partnership, is a very, very important step forward.

Last month saw the government defeat the Labour party’s Civil Unions Bill 2006, claiming it’s proposal to allow same-sex and unmarried couples to enter into civil partnership was unconstitutional.

“We will be very supportive of the women (Zappone and Gilligan ) making the case, but we would have welcomed the Labour party bill based on a number of things.

“One, it’s equality based. It’s saying that it’s giving all the rights and responsibilities of marriage.

“Secondly, it’s putting it on the agenda of the parliament to get it put through. These issues are very obviously immediate for a lot of people.”

The result of the Supreme Court case will have no bearing on civil partnership proposal,” says Eoin.

A ruling against the couple only means their Canadian marriage is not recognised, not that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional per se.

“I think our society has an incredible capacity to change and accommodate change,” he adds optimistically.

“It’s amazing how from all parties support can be generated.”

While the issue of same-sex partnership is an important one, it is not the sole issue on GLEN’s agenda.

Community issues and mental health are high, but it’s homophobic bullying in schools which is causing particular concern as in the UK.

“That’s a critical issue for us. I think it’s undoubtedly true that the church does control a huge amount of education and we haven’t had a lot of movement there.

“Everyone acknowledges we have a lot of terrible bullying but we’ve had very little movement around making schools safer and inclusive for lesbian and gay kids so that’s something we really want to work hard at.

“But we’d also say that civil partnership marriage links to that. Because for a young person, it’s very important they can see a future in which their relationships will have legal recognition.”

New Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Brian Lenihan TD will make his first address to a lesbian and gay audience when he launches the Annual Report of GLEN today.