Trinity hosts public forum on marriage referendum in lead-up to polling day

Although tensions occasionally surfaced, the debate was conducted in a very civil manner with four panelists speaking per side

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A public forum on the upcoming marriage referendum took place in the Edmund Burke Theatre yesterday evening. The forum was organised by Trinity College to encourage discussion amongst staff and students regarding the marriage referendum and the event was welcomed by both the Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Union. The discussion was chaired by Registrar, Professor Shane Allwright.

Dr Kris McDaniel-Miccio, Senator John Crown, Ms Marguerite Bolger and Ms Annie Hoey spoke in favour of a ‘yes’ vote while Mr Barry Jones, Senator Jim Walsh, Mr David Martin and Dr Gerry Fahey spoke in favour of a ‘no’ vote.

Barry Jones is chairman of Stand Up for Marriage, a campaign group supporting the no vote. Jones argued that marriage is based on the union between a man and a woman, stating “if there is no gender difference there can be no marriage.”  “This is not opinion,” he added, “It is simply human nature.” Jones claimed that no same-sex relationship could fulfil the meaning of marriage or its social function because these are based on gender difference. Therefore, if the state allows same-sex marriage, marriage will be “reduced to a counterfeit” and “destroyed for everyone.”

Dr Kris McDaniel-Miccio, Professor of Law at University of Denver and visiting Professor at Trinity, spoke after Jones. McDaniel-Miccio was one of the plaintiffs in a case challenging the Colorado state prohibiting marriage between same-sex couples in Colorado.  McDaniel-Miccio commented on her reasons for supporting marriage equality and argued that the concerns of those opposing same-sex marriage are not founded in reason, but instead in ‘religion’ and ‘mythology.’ She claimed that marriage cannot be defined by the ability to procreate, drawing attention to marriages between “infertile people or people over the age of sixty.” McDaniel-Miccio rejected the argument that children do better when raised through a male female union and referenced a number of studies collected by The American Sociological Association that, she said, supported her claim.

Following Dr McDaniel-Miccio’s address, Senator Jim Walsh referred to article 40 section 1 of the Constitution, which states that everyone will “be held equal before the law,” as evidence that equality already exists in the constitution. However, the article also says that the state will hold due regard for differences in capacity. There is a “difference of capacity between same sex couples and opposite sex couples,” Walsh commented. It is “the ability to procreate, which is fundamental to the continuance of our species,” he added. Walsh referenced an article by American woman Heather Barwick, who following the divorce of her parents was raised by her mother and her same-sex partner. Although Heather is grateful for the love given to her by two mothers, she felt a void due to the absence of her father. This showed that both a woman and a man are important for child rearing, according to Walsh. He believes that same-sex marriages will lead to an increase in surrogacy and he referenced a surrogacy seminar, ‘The Future of Same-Sex Parenting in Ireland,’ that took place in Dublin last year. In addition, Walsh also stated that gender balance is frequently discussed in Ireland and asked why then does gender balance not also apply to marriage.

Following Senator John Walsh, Senator John Crowe responded by stating his belief that it is okay to redefine marriage under certain circumstances and he referred to several examples of this.  Crowe criticised the arguments of the no campaign involving adoption and surrogacy. Adoption in Ireland has become extraordinarily rare and “the figures are between ten and twenty adoptions a year,” Crowe said. It would be unfair to prevent a range of people from getting married because of the small number of adoptions that occur, he added. Regarding surrogacy, Crowe argued that it is its own topic and should be dealt with separately. David Martin, a postgraduate Trinity student studying for a Masters in Theology, claimed that marriage is “an essential building block to any society,” and commented that to change something “that can assure the continuation of any society is something to be avoided.” Martin stressed his awareness of the troubles within the homosexual community but he does not think same-sex marriage is to answer to “alleviating the hurt and the pain that many in the homosexual community have to live with.”

Marguerite Bolger, a lawyer who participated in a report about civil partnership in Ireland, then addressed the audience and she emphasised “the notion of the long marriage.” This idea of “the long marriage” refers to the activities of a married couple throughout their entire married life. Bolger agreed that some of this relates to children, however there is another element, which is about one partner having to care for the other in times of need. Bolger believed that this element is just as important as the one concerning children, yet it is often forgotten. Like Crowe, Bolger also gave examples of how the concept of marriage has changed over time in Ireland. For example, the ‘succession act’ in 1965 gave one an automatic claim to a deceased spouse’s estate. Bolger concluded by saying that although she believes that there’s no longer a large amount of legal distinctions between civil partnership and marriage, it is still culturally very important.

Dr Gerry Fahey, an occupational psychologist, was the final no-side supporter to speak at the event. Fahey is a member of First Families First, a group advocating for the following statement, from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to be included in the Irish Constitution: the State shall “respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both of its biological parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents.” “If that was included in the referendum I would vote yes as I do believe those in the LGBT community have been unfairly treated,” Fahey stated. However in its current form Fahey believes that “this proposal by the government will add to the conflict that normally happens when a relationship breaks up.”

The last speaker was Annie Hoey, the Vice-President for Equality and Citizenship, Union of Students in Ireland. She spoke of some of the discrimination she had experienced in Ireland and told the audience that “changing the constitution to allow for same-sex marriage will not put an end to homophobia, but it will be a huge step forward.” Hoey spoke of the benefits that accompany marriage and commented that “civil partnerships are not a family for the purpose of the constitution.” She also believed that marriage is more than the “sum of its legal parts” and argued that it is “a cultural institution representing the ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people.”

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience and Students’ Union Education Officer Katie Byrne raised concerns about Barry Jones’s comments on the nature of marriage, stating that monogamous homosexual pairs do exist within nature and have been found in hundreds of species. Jones responded, saying marriage only concerns human beings and he believes it is not a social construct but a discovery of human reason.

Although tensions occasionally surfaced between the two sides, the debate was conducted in a very civil manner. The event was filmed and will be made available through the college website.