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Some thoughts on Irish public opinion on same-sex marriage, the Irish Diaspora and the Senate in late 2012

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Attitudes have changed - Thousands turn out for Dublin Pride
Attitudes have changed - Thousands turn out for Dublin Pride

In The Irish Times this week, results of a survey of Irish public opinion on a number of issues have been featured.  The survey of 1,000 adults with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points was conducted by the polling company, Ipsos/MRBI, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.  A consideration of three of the poll’s most fascinating results follows.

First is that a majority of those surveyed, 53%, now favor the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Just six years ago, less than one-third of Irish people favored marriage rights for same-sex couples.  This meteoric rise in support mirrors the global increase in acceptance for the rights of gays and lesbians and an awareness that, notwithstanding the contrary protestations of those opposed to same-sex marriage, there hasn’t been a dramatic change in the landscape in those jurisdictions that now allow same-sex marriage.

The poll result on this issue is also partly attributable to the work of Irish non-governmental organizations like Marriage Equality and GLEN (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) to de-stigmatise homosexual relationships and to demonstrate that most gay and lesbian couples are just like most heterosexual couples.  They love each other and want to have that love formally recognized by law.  Civil partnerships, which some advocates regard as an important stepping stone and others regard as an unacceptable “marriage-light,” are now available for gay and lesbian couples in Ireland.

Where to next is the key question for these lobby groups.  While the appeal of the unsuccessful case brought by Senator Katherine Zappone and her partner, Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan, seeking to have their Canadian same-sex marriage recognized will be heard by the Supreme Court early next year, few expect that they will succeed.  Legalising same-sex marriage will require constitutional reform.  This will be complicated and time consuming, yet seems destined to succeed eventually.  The process may be set in motion by an upcoming constitutional convention that is to consider the issue of same-sex marriage, as well as a number of others.

A second interesting result is with respect to voting rights for the Irish diaspora.  This issue will also be considered in the constitutional convention.  As things stand at present, Irish citizens living outside of Ireland have no voting rights in Irish elections.

The Ipsos/MRBI poll, however, indicates that a large majority, 68%, now believe that Irish citizens living abroad should have the right to vote in presidential elections.  This is a heartening result for the diaspora, especially for advocates of emigrant voting.  That many people have moved on from the oft-cited view that those who don’t pay taxes shouldn’t have a say in who governs is particularly welcome.  One’s sense of nationality and identity is innate and deep.  The law should endeavor to give voice to that sense, and not make an arbitrary distinction about Irishness based on when, where and to whom one last paid taxes.

But a lot remains unclear.  Do the 68% believe that voting rights should be extended to all Irish citizens abroad, including those who may be generations removed from the land of their ancestors?  Or should only recent emigrants have voting rights?  And where should the line be drawn?  Moreover, how many of the 68% would allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in parliamentary elections, as well as in elections for the largely symbolic presidency?  These difficult questions require teasing out.

A third poll result relates to the abolition of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament).  Strangely, this will not be considered in the constitutional convention.  Fine Gael, the lead party in government, has committed to holding a referendum to eliminating the Seanad.  Despite being the upper house, the Seanad has less power than the lower house of the Oireachtas, Dáil Éireann.  It has been criticized as a talk shop and as something of a rest home for failed or retiring politicians.  Additionally, the labyrinthine rules for electing and selecting senators (some are elected, others are appointed by the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister)) are widely regarded as undemocratic.

Unsurprisingly then, the poll reveals that a majority of Irish voters, 55%, want to abolish the Seanad.  Some commentators regard this result as a reassuring one for the government.  My view is different.

Given the widespread criticism of the Seanad and the reality that the electorate may today be more anti-politician than it has ever been, one would think that a much larger majority would leap at the chance to “fire” politicians.  That nearly one of every two voters either favors retention of the Seanad or isn’t yet sure indicates to me that a referendum on abolition mightn’t be the “slam dunk” the government had envisaged.

Earlier this year, an eminent group of current senators, former elected officials and commentators from across the Irish political spectrum was formed in the name of reforming, not abolishing, the Seanad.  A paper drafted by the group, “Seanad Éireann: Open It, Don’t Close It,” makes a persuasive case that a reformed upper house could play an important role in the political and lawmaking processes.

When and if a referendum on Seanad abolition is scheduled, their influential voices will help shape the contours of the debate.  And given how low voter turnout was on the recent children’s rights referendum – assuming, as I do, that a higher turnout of less tuned in, casual voters would favor abolition – a win for the government is far from guaranteed.  Rumors of the demise of Seanad Éireann may be greatly exaggerated indeed.

These three matters – not to mention the economy – should keep politicians and the commentariat busy for the next while.          

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