Check Against Delivery

Ceann Chomhairle

I propose to report to the Dáil, on behalf of the Government, on its response to the Third Report of the Constitutional Convention. I am pleased to inform the House that the Government agreed, at its meeting of 5 November, that a referendum should be held, no later than mid 2015, on the question of enabling same-sex couples to marry.

The Constitutional Convention has been given the task, with Dáil approval, to consider issues on which constitutional change may be needed and to report on its conclusions to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Convention was requested to consider the issue of whether same-sex marriage should be provided for in the Constitution. It sought submissions from interested parties and received 1,077 submissions from interest groups, church organisations and private individuals by the 19 March deadline. The submissions received reflected a diversity of views on the issue, with arguments both for and against a referendum on same-sex marriage.

The Convention devoted its third plenary meeting on 13-14 April 2013 to the question of whether the Constitution should be amended to provide for same-sex marriage. The outcome of its deliberations was that a strong majority of its members recommended that provision should be made for same-sex marriage. 79 members voted in favour of changing the Constitution to allow for civil marriage for same sex couples. 19 members voted against the proposition while one member had no opinion.

78 members recommended that the amendment should be directive, e.g., that the State shall enact laws providing for same sex marriage. 17 members voted that the amendment should be permissive, e.g. that the State may enact laws providing for same sex marriage.

81 members recommended that the State should enact laws incorporating the changed arrangements in regard to the parentage, guardianship and upbringing of children. 12 members voted against this recommendation.

The Constitutional Convention submitted its report to the Oireachtas on 2 July 2013. In line with its commitment to consider the Convention’s recommendations, the Government agreed its response to the Third Report at its meeting of 5 November 2013.

The Government’s response is to welcome the Third Report of the Convention on the Constitution. It notes the high level of engagement of the members in the process and the enormous interest of civil society as evidenced by the large number of submissions. The Government also notes the high level of support - 79% - within the Convention to changing the Constitution so as to enable same-sex couples to marry.

In response, the Government has decided that the issue should be put to the people for decision in the first half of 2015. I have been charged by the Government with the task of undertaking the work necessary to prepare a Referendum Bill and a draft implementation Bill to provide for marriages between same-sex couples while guaranteeing freedom of religion for solemnisers.

The Government is mindful that the position of children in families headed by same-sex couples was a matter of concern for the Convention. This is an issue of valid concern. The position of children who are parented, both presently and in the future, in this State by same-sex couples, their legal relationship to the couples who are parenting them, and the rights and obligations of those parenting need to be addressed and prescribed in clear legal terms. This is the case irrespective of whether or not we have same-sex marriage. It is an issue of direct relevance to couples already in civil partnerships and to those who might celebrate civil partnerships in the future. It is not specifically or uniquely relevant to the issue of same- sex marriage although some may misleadingly depict it in that way. I am currently working on legislative proposals to address this issue which I hope to bring to Government in January 2014. The objective of the General Scheme which I am preparing is to remove the legal inequalities between children in a large range of non-traditional family structures relative to those living in a constitutional family based on marriage. It is important that we treat all children equally regardless of the circumstances of their conception or birth and, in the best interests of children, provide for legal certainty in the area of family relationships.

In the last 24 years, Ireland has made the journey from institutionalised prejudice against homosexuality to becoming a more open, accepting, and inclusive society. The first legislative moves were made in the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, which banned incitement to hatred of a person or a group of people on a range of grounds, including sexual orientation. In 1993 the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act finally decriminalised male homosexual acts. The Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 prohibited discrimination in employment or in the provision of goods and services on a range of grounds, again including sexual orientation. It was not until 2010, in the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act that same-sex couples were able to have their relationships recognised - the first legal acknowledgment in Ireland of the intrinsic value and profundity of same-sex relationships.

The next step in this progression towards equality is for us, as a State, to recognise and legislatively provide for the wish of same-sex couples to marry. The importance of marriage to us as a society is borne out in the latest census figures. Census 2011 revealed that there were 143,588 more married people in Ireland in 2011 than in 2006. 50% of our adult population is married. The figures confirm that we are more deeply attached to marriage as a society than ever. Marriage remains the primary means by which we make a lifelong commitment to another person and create a new family with him or her.

Some will argue that civil partnership has offered a mechanism by which same-sex couples can make a permanent commitment to one another. Certainly, civil partnership has been a major step forward on the journey to marriage equality. Civil partnered couples are now treated equally to married couples in terms of taxation, social welfare entitlements, life insurance and pensions, inheritance, maintenance and the protection of the shared home.

Nonetheless, civil partnership was framed to be distinctively different from marriage in line with the requirements of the Constitution. The requirements for its dissolution are less onerous than those for marriage. A civil partnership can be dissolved if the civil partners have lived apart for two of the previous three years, unlike marriage where couples have to live apart for four of the previous five years before being able to divorce. Similarly, civil partners do not enjoy constitutional protection as a couple in the same way as married couples nor do we yet have legislative provision to recognise children as part of a civil partnership family.

The tide of law internationally is moving in favour of marriage equality. 15 countries and, in the U.S, 14 States and Washington DC now provide for same-sex marriage. In the past year alone, 4 countries and 6 US states have introduced marriage for same-sex couples. The countries and states which currently provide for marriage equality include the following:

Argentina

Brazil

Belgium

Canada

Denmark

France

Iceland

Netherlands

New Zealand

Norway

Portugal

South Africa

Spain

Sweden

Uruguay

In Mexico: Mexico City and the State of Quintana Roo

In the US: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington State and Washington DC.

Legislation on marriage equality will come into effect in England and Wales in March of next year and also in the U.S. States of Hawaii and Illinois in the coming months. Civil partnership is increasingly being viewed as a stepping stone towards marriage equality rather than as a final destination.

I am conscious that many people in our society have differing views as to what constitutes marriage. Marriage is viewed as a religious commitment by many people. What we propose will not in any way affect the choices of those who wish to have weddings in religious ceremonies or who follow the teachings of their religious denomination as regards marriage. They will continue to be free to follow their religious beliefs with regard to the religious aspects of their weddings and marriages.

Similarly, we are conscious of the religious sensitivities of clergy of different denominations regarding their role as solemnisers of marriages. The Government has decided that the implementation Bill will explicitly protect the freedom of religion of religious solemnisers, respecting the constitutional guarantees in Article 43 of the Constitution. There will be no requirement for religious solemnisers to go against their religious beliefs to perform marriages for same-sex couples.

It will be argued that the referendum is about children. As already mentioned, legislation that I am currently developing will address the issue of children in advance of the referendum and is required whether or not constitutional change is effected and, as a consequence, individuals enabled to enter into same-sex marriages. We must update our legislation to address the diversity of family relationships within which children are presently being brought up and cared for and our obligation to do so is in the best interests of children. We must also address a legal anomaly in our adoption legislation since 1952 which regards an individual, whether heterosexual or gay, as eligible to adopt but which doesn’t regard as so eligible a couple who have entered into a civil partnership.

The intended referendum is about one thing only, the question of who is permitted to marry in the eyes of the State. Irish people know from our history how hurtful it can be for laws to be in place preventing particular categories of people from getting married. The restrictions on marriage introduced under the Penal Laws were deeply felt. They prevented intermarriage between Catholics and Anglicans and ensured that marriages conducted by Presbyterian ministers were not legally recognised. Those restrictions, which would have seemed reasonable at the time to those who put them in place were, in more enlightened times, dismantled as deeply unfair and discriminatory.

We must now ask ourselves whether we can continue to ignore the strong wish of same-sex couples to participate in an institution which so many in this State consider vital to our well-being and a cornerstone of the formation of a family? Can we justify our continuing to discriminate against individuals because of their sexual orientation? I believe the answer to both of those questions is "No we cannot".

Our marriage laws have been framed for a different time. Now that we know that they exclude a particular group of people, now that we know that same-sex couples have a deep desire to be able to marry one another, we have a responsibility to address this issue. It is a question of fairness and of equality. The planned referendum gives us the opportunity to renew our commitment to fairness and equality and to demonstrate that our society truly cherishes all of our people equally.

ENDS

17 December, 2013