Civil Partnership Bill is major step forward in a relatively dark period for the country

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this hugely important and momentous legislation.  The Labour Party enthusiastically supports the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations for Cohabitants Bill 2009.  We will try to amend it in some areas and, while we can to some extent predict the Minister’s response to our proposals, we will push them as strongly as we can.  We hope to expand on the vital work done on this Bill with further legislation when the Labour Party is in Government.

I think this is the first time since I entered the Oireachtas three years ago that I have commended the Government on any issue but I am happy to congratulate it on bringing this legislation before the Houses.  I also acknowledge the heavy lifting that was required from the Green Party in order to bring the matter to its present status.

When we discuss this Bill in more detail on Committee Stage, we should not forget that we are trying to improve the lives of individual citizens.  We should, therefore, also congratulate the thousands of campaigners who have fought for this legislation.  None of this would happened without people who were prepared to go to meetings, spend time on campaigns and work out how incremental change could be achieved.  Perhaps some felt they were compromising themselves while others wanted to progress their goals without being seen as incrementalists but they made the same intelligent political decision as so many other figures in history by accepting this Bill as legislation that could be achieved and leaving for another day the fight to build something better.  For that reason, I am delighted to be a Member of this House as this Bill comes before us.

I wish to respond briefly to the conceptual issues raised by Senator Ronan Mullen.  He stated the legislation might find favour across the House if it had been drafted in a different way but he did not tell us what changes were required to meet his approval.  It is not enough to say he could have supported the legislation if it was drafted in a different way.  Perhaps if it was never introduced people would have felt comfortable.  I have much more respect for people who say they do not agree with or believe in the legislation because they think it is wrong.  I have no difficulty with people saying in Parliament that we should not have it or we should vote against it but what does it mean to say it should be drafted in a different way?

The legislation is not discriminatory.  In regard to the so-called conscience clause, I have never come across such a contrivance masquerading as a basis for opposing legislation.

It is a complete fabrication.  The opponents of this legislation are creating a class of people that they posit will have a difficulty.  There is no evidence that such a difficulty would ever be felt by people or has been expressed.  It has been wholly contrived and fabricated to try to create a basis for objection to the legislation on equality grounds.  Examples have been given, including by the Minister in the Other House, to which we will return later.  It is simply inconceivable, however, that if someone is appointed to be a judge, for example, of the Circuit Court which administers the divorce legislation, he or she would refuse to make an order for divorce in circumstances in which he or she has a difficulty or objection to it on a personal basis or as a matter of conscience.  It is not conceivable that the Houses of the Oireachtas would pass legislation providing for a so-called freedom of conscience clause.  The torturous way in which this matter has been imported into the debate is dishonest.  Opponents of the legislation should come to the House and argue against the Bill.  The notion that freedom of conscience is a factor in this matter is utterly implausible.

I struggle with the issue of people objecting to this Bill because their argument is dressed up as if they are being excluded from the debate.  Senator Mullen, for example, states he has a right to make a distinction between what is proposed and what he regards as being the traditional and most desirable form of marriage.  He has a right to hold this point of view, campaign and argue for it, urge the education system to promote it to a greater extent or raise the issue in the House as often as he wishes.  I do not seek to demean the point the Senator makes.  For two years, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, in which the Minister was involved, debated this issue.  The wording of the proposed constitutional amendment produced by the joint committee, which I do not have before me, makes clear that children are best cared for in a loving relationship in the family in which they are brought up.

Nobody is arguing that Senator Mullen cannot maintain his view as to what constitutes a desirable and satisfactory form of marriage.  Who has argued otherwise?  The Senator argues that we are shedding this as an aspiration.  How is this done in the legislation?  I genuinely cannot understand his argument given that he can continue to maintain, promote and campaign for his view and aspiration?  In what respect is the Senator excluded?  He and others who share his view are able to maintain their view.  The task of legislators is to make laws.  In the case of this legislation, our task is to make a law that is not directed towards a particular philosophical or traditional view of marriage but to legislate for all those in relationships and none.  It is not our role to promote a particular religious or moral standpoint.

There is no difficulty in us continuing to have divergent views.  I object to the suggestion that because people find themselves in a minority on an issue, they are somehow being subjected to what is being described as “aggressive secularism”.  I fail to understand precisely what this notion means given that Members are freely and openly legislating and are prepared to debate with Senator Mullen and others any changes they wish to propose.  No one is excluding debate or arguing that people cannot hold certain views.  A disingenuous attempt is being made to try to portray those who oppose the legislation as being shut out of public debate or precluded from advocating certain views.  They have every entitlement to do so.

This is a great and bright day in what is a relatively dark period for the country in many other respects.  The Bill is a major step forward and a great tribute to all of those who have been involved in it.  As a citizen, a legislator and the brother of a gay man, I am thrilled to be in the House for this debate.