(Sing if you’re) Glad to be Voting Yes to Marriage Equality

I’ve been listening to this song a lot in the last week, pretty much any time a ‘No’ campaigner makes one of those comments that feels like a punch in the chest. Loudly singing along not only provides an outlet for unproductive rage, it’s also a valuable reminder of the historical context in which this campaign is taking place.

This is an exhilarating time to be an LGBT person in Ireland. After decades of exclusion, for the first time ever we have the opportunity to reach out to our families and communities, to share our pride in who we are and, together, to stand for a better future and a warmer, more accepting Ireland.

Unfortunately, a month out from the marriage referendum, I think the joy is fading from the ‘Yes’ campaign. I’m not surprised. As May 22nd draws closer, our opponents voices are getting harsher. And as ‘No’ campaigners ask ever more insidious questions as to whether we are abnormal, anti-social, or threatening to children, we are forbidden to defend ourselves with a simple truth: that those who oppose equality for LGBT people are homophobic.

Fifteen months ago, by threatening legal action against RTÉ and Rory O’Neill, members of Ireland’s extreme conservative establishment sent a clear warning to LGBT people and their allies: you are not entitled to the phrase homophobia, you are not entitled to your anger, you are not entitled to speak, or live, your truth. This has been endlessly reiterated since, most recently in the attack that’s been launched against Joe Caslin’s mural on George’s Street. The message, again, is clear: gay people should stay quiet and stop taking up space.

The worst thing is, I think they’ve gotten away with it. As LGBT campaigners we have allowed ourselves to be intimidated, we are running a campaign whose first goal is not to step on anyone’s toes. Terrified by the prospect of losing the support of the “soft middle”, the campaign has become about smiling nicely, saying unthreatening things about love, not being too flamboyant and not, under any circumstances, expressing anger against what Mary McAleese calls “the architecture of homophobia”.

To paraphrase Panti herself, instead of striving to be the being the best gays possible, we’re checking ourselves, trying not to “give the gay away”. And to me, that feels oppressive. What’s more, it loses sight of the concept that has, for nearly half a century, been at the heart of queer politics — Pride.

Right now, all the talk seems to be about what will happen if we lose the soft middle and, as a result, the referendum. But why not turn that on its head? If we convince ordinary, decent voters with an inspiring vision of the society we’re trying to create, we’re looking at a huge victory, a loud and clear statement that — just two decades after homosexuality was decriminalised — shame no longer has a place in our families, our communities, our politics or our society.

There has, rightly, been a lot of focus on today’s young LGBT people and on future generations of children who deserve to know love and acceptance. However, we also speak for another silent demographic, the generations of gay people for whom leaving the closet was never an option, the people driven from the country by violence, hatred and criminalisation, and the hundreds of gay men who should be with us today but fell victim to the AIDS epidemic, often stigmatised by their communities and left to die in isolation.

For me, and for many young gay people, that past is almost unimaginable, but its legacy continues. Just as future generations deserve our hope and our support, past generations deserve our anger and our pride. This is a fight, between silence and speech, between hatred and love, between shame and pride and, in the most severe cases, between life and death.

We have one month left. Let’s make it a party.

Want to show your support for the Yes Equality campaign? Click here to donate or here to find out more about volunteering.

Ireland, I owe you an apology…

Since leaving Dublin a year ago, I have checked out of Irish politics. My engagement has declined gradually, but it’s approaching the point where I couldn’t cast an informed vote in a General Election and before long it will hit the stage where I would struggle to pass Junior Cert CSPE.

My checking out isn’t purely due to laziness or apathy, though that may play a part. Whatever Michael Noonan says about young people making the lifestyle choice to emigrate, when I realised that Ireland and I were done, I was standing outside Leinster House the night that the Savita story broke, with  a crowd of other people who were devastated at what the country — our country —had come to.

Being Irish is hard. It’s hard to watch government fob off the issues you care most about, because they’re scared, or because they’re prioritising the next election, or because they suddenly need to gather more information, or because everyone’s tired of referendums anyway.

But the outrageous treatment of Rory O’ Neill in the last fortnight has reminded me that the voices that oppose change in Ireland are not only scurrilous and spiteful, they are frighteningly well-resourced and not afraid to threaten, to silence and to intimidate. And the national broadcaster, as it still has the nerve to call itself, has caved and suggested that these are the voices of democratic debate.

So I’m sorry that I left, but now I’m back. Not back in the country, but back in the discussion. I know it won’t have much impact, but surely we need every voice we can get.

Media preview

Nobody likes gender quotas

This piece was originally published in Siren. It’s somewhat out of date, but with the debate about gender quotas swirling in Ireland again I thought I’d give it another run out. 

Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot
papers. Fact. Although we can observe a surge in the strength and popularity of grassroots feminism,
as evidenced by the rise of activist and lobbying groups and publications, the change has not extended
to the Houses of Government. 15% of public representatives are female and the absence of progress on
certain issues reflects that shortfall. A social change has occured, but a political change has not.

Mary O' Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: "The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!"

Mary O’ Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: “The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!”

Finally, with the Labour-backed quotas legislation, this issue is getting some attention in the Oireachtas.
However, the proposal for a gender quota of 30% has been received critically by both men and women.
Some are, to put in bluntly, disgusting sexists. However, many are on the side of the angels; they agree
with the end but have doubts about the means. They believe that introducing a quota demeans the
achievement of women who succeed to political office. Furthermore, they hold the reasonable view
that representation shouldn’t be dependent on sameness. Women shouldn’t only represent women, men
shouldn’t only represent men, gays shouldn’t only represent gays, black people shouldn’t only represent
black people.

This method of representation, by someone like yourself, is known as “descriptive representation” and is
key to the positive discrimination debate. Is it a good thing? All other things being equal, probably not. In
a gender, race, sexuality, age, and class blind world we would vote purely based on policy, be represented
by those who held our views and trust in their ability to understand our experience. We’re all opposed to
quotas on a universal level, in that we wish they were redundant.

However, equality has not been achieved, and we shouldn’t let our discussion of representation be
derailed by an unrealistic vision of a gender-blind world.Women do not have the same opportunities as
men in Irish politics. They are less likely to get nominated, they are less likely to get elected, they are
less likely to rise to high ministries once they are elected. Those are demeaning and offensive truths, but
they are truths nonetheless. While it wounds my pride as a woman to acknowledge them, my pride is
less important than meaningful change in our political system and so, like many feminists, I grudgingly
support the quotas legislation.

How significant is the change to the political system? Voting for women is not just symbolic gestures
and quotas do far more than enhance opportunity for a small proportion of women. Greater female
representation will transform the nature of our political system. The overwhelming masculine bias
facilitates group-think, it perpetuates old-boy politics, it undermines progress on issues which primarily
affect women and it harms the body politic overall.

This magazine will be published on the twenty-year anniversary of the infamous X-Case. Twenty years
on, we are still waiting for legislation on the court’s ruling that a threat of suicide is justification for
abortion. This is an affront to the woman we know only as X who was attacked by the Irish state in
1992, and continues to be betrayed by the same state. It’s an affront to all of us. Whatever our stances
on abortion, we must agree that an issue of such vast moral and social importance deserves discussion.
Furthermore, when our courts establish something as a right, in a functioning state the legislature would

accept the accruing responsibilty. Instead, for twenty years we have seen overwhelming legislative apathy
and reliance on Irish solutions to Irish problems. The cost to twenty years worth of vulnerable women is
immeasurable.

It’s also been twenty years since legislation was introduced on human trafficking and prostitution.
The current legislation is intended to protect the plain people of Ireland from the evils of iniquity, so
it prohibits the solicitation or sale of sex outdoors. Of course, in 1992 there was no popular use of the
internet. In twenty years we have seen a vast growth in the sex industry. Women are trafficked, coerced
into prostitution and horrifically abused. They are kept in apartments while their bodies are sold online. In
the unlikely event of a garda raid, the women are arrested while the buyers are sent quietly on their way.
New legislation is vital, as has been highlighted by the Turn off the Red Light movement. Why hasn’t it
been introduced? Once again, apathy, ignorance and the absence of strong female voices.

Despite the horrifying proportion of women affected by sexual assault, we have yet to introduce
meaningful and effective processes to reduce its occurrence – providing better sexual education to young
men, reducing the stigma surrounding rape so that victims can come forward and, crucially, facilitating
greater prosecution and conviction rates in the courts. In the DPP’s annual report this year it was found
that in the vast majority of rape allegations brought forward, a decision was made not to prosecute. This
systemic failing essentially grants impunity to rapists, and negates the ability of the law to deter sexual
assault. Instead, women pay a tax to try to avoid rape. We shouldn’t wear short skirts, we shouldn’t drink
too much, we shouldn’t walk alone at night. These restrictions of freedom are acts of oppression against
the female population, and it’s time that legislators recognised them as such.

Descriptive representation is important because these are lived experiences. Nominal equality has, more
or less, been achieved in the West. The inequality that persists is insidious, it’s invisible unless you look
closely, and you can only fully know it when you live with it day in day out, and are worn down by it
over time. The majority of the Dáil is white, male and middle-class and can’t reasonably be expected to
look outside that bracket without a diversity of voices and experiences to promote more sensitive and
innovative thought.

Voting for women puts people in the Dáil who know the experience of pregnancy, who know the fear
that comes with walking alone at night, who have experienced the petty exclusions – not being invited
for pints or a golf game – and the severe exclusions – not having their family lives facilitated by their
employers and not being paid as much as their male counterparts. If you’ve experienced these things it’s
very difficult to shut them out of your consciousness, or to allow discussion of those issues to be shut out
of the political system. A critical mass of female voices will change our political culture.

However, we’re currently faced with the infuriating dilemma of voting for women or policy. In the
U.S., a liberal woman can’t reasonably be expected to vote for the virulent intolerance of a Bachmann
or Palin just because they’re women. Closer to home, we’re lucky to get more than one woman on
a constituency’s ballot paper and so many Irish women must choose between candidates who don’t
represent their ideals and ones who don’t understand their experience, or at least haven’t done anything to
suggest that they do.

Ultimately, policy has to decide our votes, identity politics can’t overwhelm general representation. I
can’t bring myself to give first preference to a right-wing, homophobic, non-secular woman. Quotas
will give women the option of voting for both the party they want and for a woman, which is a dramatic
increase in democratic choice.

There is a collective responsibility for change through quotas, but also an individual responsibility to
support female candidates as legitimate, whatever their political beliefs. To resist our cruel inclination to
undermine female candidates not through reasonable debate, but through attacks on their hair, clothes,
and voices. Dana and Mary Davis weren’t less intelligent than all the other presidential candidates,
they were just treated like they were. When women and men consistently slur and undervalue female
candidates, when we allow female candidates to consistently hover around the bottom of polls we give
parties an incentive to maintain their patriarchal nomination practices.

The voting method I try to uphold is that when their policies are of equal value, I prioritise female
candidates over male. Essentially, a Labour woman comes ahead of a Labour man, a Fine Gael woman
comes ahead of a Fianna Fail man, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.

One voter giving a slightly higher preference won’t change the course of a national election. But each
additional vote, each additional transfer is a statement of belief in female candidates. When we back the
woman rather than the winner it strikes at the mockery, the insults and the dismissal with which female
candidates are so often met. And maybe that will change something.

Why Democratic Constitutions Must be Secular

UPDATE 10/12/12: Have just read this article by Medhi Hasan on his refusal to give up on the Arab Spring. An important reminder of the shifts that have occurred and continue to occur in the Arab World.

“Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”

___________

Two years ago, in the semi-final of the European Debating Championships, I debated the motion “That the West should promise preferential economic and political cooperation to Arab democracies who adopt secular constitutions.”

This was August 2011. Although battle was raging in Libya, Bahraini protests were being suppressed and the carnage in President Mohamed MorsiSyria was underway, many of us still quite confidently believed in the transformative potential of the Arab Spring. Sixteen months later, reading about tanks deployed after fatal clashes in Cairo, that debate seems uncomfortably prescient. As the Egyptian judiciary knows, as Morsi’s advisers know, as protesters and commentators know, this hastily drafted, ill-considered, religiously saturated draft constitution represents the danger of an unequal, undemocratic and intensely Islamist Egypt.

Non-secular constitutions are fundamentally incompatible with democracy. This issue is particularly close to my heart at the moment, as activists in Ireland continue to fight the spectre of our Catholic Constitution of 1937. Although I wouldn’t dream of comparing the two situations in terms of severity, there are bizarre similarities between the two constitutions:

Egypt Ireland
“The state shall provide motherhood and childhood services for free. It shall also guarantee co-ordination between the duties of the woman and her public work.” The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
“Freedom of opinion and thought is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his opinion orally or in writing, pictures or other means of publication and expression.” And yet yet “Insulting prophets and messengers is forbidden”  The State protects the right of citizens “the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions” and yet “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
 “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”  The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. (removed by referendum in 1972/3)

Seventy five years on Ireland is a nominally secular state and yet we are stuck in democratic limbo because of the lingering influence of Catholic morality. A dying woman can be refused life-saving treatment by her doctors on the grounds that “this is a Catholic country” and government after government after government can ignore the democratic will of the people and refuse to legislate to save women’s lives based on outdated and cowardly fear of a privileged Catholic subsection.

We could also discuss Catholic-run education, legal impunity for clerical abusers, imprisonment and forced labour for unmarried mothers, denial of rights to the LGBT community and plenty else. Even when explicit reference to the Church has been expunged, the influence of the “special position” persists.

Law built on Islamic foundations presents its own dangers and challenges to democratic systems. A particular danger of this constitution is the new powers it affords to the scholars of al-Azhar University, who will be consulted on all matters relating to Sharia.  While I don’t know the details that surely gives a great deal of power to the interpretations of a very small group of people. There are also wide-ranging and intensely worrying concerns about the rights and freedoms of Egyptian women, who are already victims of an epidemic of street harassment, brutality and sexual assault.

However, the underlying problem with any religiously based constitution is that there is no avenue for dissent against the “will of God” and as such, the privileges of citizenship are shut off to non-Muslims or non-Catholics. Believing in democratic systems means that we’re willing to risk being in the minority, but only on the assumption that we can criticise, debate and present alternatives.

Against a dominant religious entity that’s not possible. We can show the evidence of devastating harm, we can insist that what’s going on offends our innate sense of justice, that it defies all principles of equality, we can point out that people are unnecessarily dying because of government policy and the other side can simply respond with “well, yes, but God says…” or “yes, but Sharia says…” Religious morality is inaccessible to the non-believer and as such should not be applicable to the non-believer.  Equality cannot exist in a state that affords religious privilege, so a truly democratic state requires a secular constitution.

Of course, if we return to the debate back in 2011, Western economic and political incentives wouldn’t have offset the current discord in Egypt over President Morsi’s draft constitution. Very often Western interference does the opposite by playing into the anti-West narratives of Islamists and entrenching divisions. What’s more, as Western governments awkwardly try to shove decades of implicit support for Mubarak under the rug, I can’t imagine the secularists would welcome them with open arms either.

However, the principle stands and those of us who believe in the early democratic vision of the Arab Awakening should stand in complete solidarity with the opponents of  the draft constitution.

Open Letter: Lethal Apathy and the Urgency of Legislation on ‘X’

If I was contacting you under normal circumstances I would describe myself as a concerned constituent. Today I’m writing as a grieving constituent, citizen and human being.

Today, like so many others, I am deeply hurt and am forced to question whether a country that wilfully allows a woman to die in excruciating pain based on obscure morality is a country that I can call home. The death of Savita Halappanavar is the direct result of twenty years of political cowardice and moral failure. It is a cause of shame for Ireland’s government and for the Irish people. Please understand the gravity of your decisions and actions on this issue.

In his interview with Time Magazine, the Taoiseach told the international community that abortion “is not of priority for government now.” That attitude, which has persisted in Irish politics for decades, is abhorrent. This doesn’t need a referendum, it doesn’t require public consultation or a lengthy investigation. It requires the government to fulfill its fundamental constitutional responsibilities. The legislative apathy so characteristic of our political system has actually killed someone. What more is this government waiting for?

I am a constituent, a citizen and a human who deserves basic respect and protection from my government. The kind of respect and protection denied to Savita Halappanavar. I want legislation to be introduced to give effect to the X Case as a matter of priority, of urgency, of basic humanity.

Is mise,

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin

I have sent this message to my representatives in Dublin West, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Please join the protest this evening at 6pm outside Leinster House. Hopefully by showing the depth of citizen commitment to change on this issue we can elicit the same commitment from our representatives. This is will become a political battle, but before anything else it’s about a person and a terrible loss. As we fight for change, Savita Halappanavar must be kept in our thoughts and at the centre of our actions. Deepest sympathies to her family, friends and community. 

Why Do Children Need Specific Rights?

In this morning’s Irish Times Vincent Browne writes that Saturday’s Children’s Rights Referendum is an unnecessary stunt by the government. He dismisses the claim that children’s rights aren’t recognised in the existing constitution as “shameless nonsense,” arguing that:

Children as citizens of the State are conferred with as much in the way of rights as anybody else in article 40.3.1, which states: “The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.” The proposed change makes no difference at all legally but it conveys a cosy feeling that we care about children.

This argument, while not uncommon, is very obviously incorrect. Children are ineligible to vote, are prohibited from holding public office,  cannot own property, and cannot work to make reasonable provision for their domestic needs. To suggest that they are “conferred with as much in the way of rights as anyone else” is ludicrous.

Of course, there are good reasons for that – I’m not arguing for Baby TDs or child labour. However, because children’s limited agency forces them into dependence on others for access to basic needs and because the constitution denies them the rights that allow citizens personal independence, it is entirely consistent that  in the same constitution special provision  be made for their protection.

There are legal impediments to children escaping situations of violence or abuse – that they cannot be independent through work, that they can’t gain ownership over a place to live and the person responsible for the violence is very often also responsible for the child. Adults can independently escape from abusive situations, though there are obviously significant barriers to doing so. Children can’t. Given that the constitution incapacitates them, it should also affirm the state’s responsibility to protect them.

Children do not have avenues to expressing themselves effectively.  Adults, when their needs are not being met, can vote, can take legal action, can appeal legal decisions to higher courts and can involve themselves in the political system. Those avenues to being heard are universally available to those over the age of 18. In cases pertaining to children a decent judge will consider the view of the child, a good social worker will interact with the child to assess his or her opinions and preferences, a guardian ad litem (in the very rare cases when they are provided) can represent the voice of the child in legal proceedings. But these protections are dependent on circumstance and luck. This amendment provides children with a universal entitlement to speak and be heard in the discussions that shape their lives.

Many people I’ve spoken to are concerned that more power is being given to the state, which has failed so monumentally in the past. That concern is valid, but I feel that if you look at instances of state failure, in a huge number of them the problem was that organs of the state didn’t know what to do or were given too much freedom to do as they pleased.

Social workers and judges who left children in situations of appalling abuse weren’t criticised or held to a higher standard, because in the current constitution that standard doesn’t exist. It establishes that the family is good and it establishes that abuse is bad, but everything else is remarkably hazy. By making these things explicit, we make the responsibilities of the state explicit. Therefore, if they fail there isn’t the same scope to sweep it under the rug and hope for the best. Instead, if the state fails children (and it will at times) it can be more easily challenged and held to account, right up to the highest court in the land.

I’ve only addressed one element of the discussion, you can read analysis of the others at Yes for Children.  Please support this referendum, and please please please get out and vote on Saturday. The higher the turnout, the stronger the mandate, the better for children.

Still No Justice for Magdalenes

I have written about this before.

We’ve all read about this before.

We’re heard these stories before. And to be honest, I don’t have the heart today to recount any tales of horror from the Magdalene Laundries.

A year ago a UN Committee Against Torture recommended that the Irish State carry out a long-overdue investigation into the Laundries, with a view to providing redress and compensation to the women who had been “involuntarily confined” in these hellish institutions.

A year after the UN advised Ireland that it should stage an enquiry into nearly 70 years of institutional torture and nothing has happened. Victims have criticised government inaction and still feel that they are being ignored. They haven’t received an apology or any form of reparation.

Minister Shatter (who has promised victims a letter later in the week – generous) has formed an inter-departmental committee to establish the facts of state involvement. Minister Shatter does love his consultations and committees – from laundries, to human trafficking, to abortion – he clearly thinks it’s important to take these things slowly.

And we accept it. We accept that 90 years after these institutions began to operate he still needs to spend over a year having a think. Slow and steady doesn’t win the race. Each day on which these women aren’t acknowledged builds on the abuse they’ve endured. 79-year old Kathleen Legg wrote in The Journal today about her life-long search for justice.

What is wrong with Ireland? How can a political system so saturated with apathy continue to function? How can it claim to be a community?

Shirley Temple Bar tweeted this last week:

“They’re spending €14m on the Eucharistic Congress but they won’t give a penny to those poor women from the Magdalene Laundries. Jesus wept.”

I was skeptical at first; are they really connected? But I realised that they absolutely are. In the next week we are going to allow the Catholic Church to flaunt and fête itself while it remains grossly unrepentant for the atrocities it has committed in Ireland.

So yeah, Jesus wept.