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Closing Address by
Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality,
Social Intelligence Summer School 2016
20 July 2016
Thank you to Denise Charlton and Dr Gráinne Healy (Social Intelligence Associate) as well as Martin O’Brien and Padraic Quirk of the Social Change Initiative and to everyone here for the invitation to close the Social Intelligence Summer School 2016. I was delighted to be asked to address this gathering.
Having seen the agenda for the three days of this Summer School, I am reminded of the high calibre of contributors and advocates that we have here in Ireland in the field of LGBTI rights. Similarly, I am also impressed that so many NGOs in various fields have attended to learn from Ireland’s experience of achieving marriage equality.
On 22 May 2015, I had one of my proudest days in Government. Ireland made history when we became the first country in the world to bring in marriage equality for same sex couples through a popular vote. I remember standing on the stage and Dublin Castle looking out at the crowd and seeing pure colour and joy. It was a hot May afternoon but hope banished humidity from the air, leading to a perfect mid-summer day, one where we were at our very best as a country.
It was one of those historic days when real change happened. It reminded me of being in Beijing in 1995 for the UN World Women’s Conference listening to Hillary Clinton make that landmark speech which created such an explosion of hope and optimism for the future of women – which may culminate for Hillary next November!
It was also reminded that campaigning and advocating for something you believe in is an unglamorous slog that requires absolute commitment and herculean determination.
As I look around this room, I see many of the people who worked relentlessly, with great courage and vision, over the course of many years. That work was often done with few resources and, at times, at great personal risk. In those difficult and challenging times, you remained dedicated to driving change in order to bring about equality for the members of the LGBTI community in Ireland.
When I think about change that required courage and vision, I think of David Norris going each step of the way to the European Court of Human Rights to fight for what he knew was right.
I think of Mary Robinson who fought alongside David for the sake of human and civil rights.
I think of Máire Geoghegan Quinn who stepped forward and made the decision to push for decriminalisation of homosexuality at a time when such thoughts were deemed radical.
I think of former Senator Sheila Terry who first proposed a Civil Partnership Bill on behalf of Fine Gael I think of TDs
And the public figures who came out in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum on marriage equality.
Panti made her Noble Call. People from outside of the LGBTI community openly pledged their support for marriage equality. None of that was easy. All of it counted.
But most of all I think of the ordinary people who came out to their families and friends over many years and slowing changed attitudes in every part of this country.
All of us owe gratitude to such leaders.
All of it went towards changing the hearts and minds of the majority of the Irish people. What an amazing power for change we harnessed by working together for a common cause.
I am also so proud of the Irish people who came together and voted with their hearts last summer and changed Ireland forever.
Together, we took an extraordinary step forward for justice and equality for all citizens of our country.
When I think of the word heroes, I think of people like you and your counterparts in other LGBTI organisations both in Ireland and abroad. Heroism is not necessarily made of sweeping gestures or one off actions. Heroism can be quiet, ongoing struggles for the sake of a higher cause. It can mean taking a leap of faith, despite personal risk or fear of criticism, because you know what you are doing is right. The LGBTI community in Ireland has stood together for decades and what you have achieved to date is remarkable.
Since last year’s referendum, my Department has overseen the enactment of the Marriage Act 2015, gender recognition legislation and the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 which provides for the most comprehensive reform of family law since the foundation of the State. These are huge steps forward for all concerned. And it has been an honour to have been the Minister for Justice and Equality during this great period of change.
I would like to be able to stand here and say that all of those problems and concerns are gone.
Despite the huge progress that we have made as a society, we cannot assume that full equality has been achieved for LGBTI people or that our job is done.
The present can still be a frightening and dangerous place for LGBTI people. Last year, we as a country said YES to marriage equality. Now, we need to keep saying YES to supporting you in every aspect of life. No society is perfect and, while we will never have a utopia, we can definitely aim to get closer to equality and inclusion.
Equality, like love, does not come in finite amounts. Full equality is something we can - and should - all share.
While formal and legislative equality for LGBTI people has been achieved, much remains to be done across our society and our shared cultures.
We need LGBTI people to feel safe - and to be safe - to come out and to be comfortable in expressing themselves honestly and openly about their feelings.
We need to assist young LGBTI people in their formative years, in schools and colleges.
We need to support LGBTI people in sporting activities, in work environments and in social settings. We need to support parents and families of LGBTI young people. We need to help older LGBTI people as well as LGBTI people who live in isolated areas. We need to support LGBTI people who live in residential care settings. Regardless of whom we are, where we live or whom we love, we are all human. We all want to love and to be loved. Together, we need to build a society where being LGBTI and loving someone should be unremarkable.
I want LGBTI people to be able to walk down the streets of the towns and cities of this country proudly holding hands with the person they love while knowing that they are safe and accepted in doing so.
Unfortunately, we all know that there are people in this world who are blinded by prejudice and hatred. I was appalled by the callous murder of 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016. It was a hate crime against LGBTI people and an act of terror. As I said at that time, my thoughts are with all of those affected by that brutal attack, particularly the families and friends who have lost loved ones and those who are recovering from injuries inflicted on them. We stand in solidarity with all members of the LGBTI community across the globe. That atrocity was an attack on the values and freedoms which we will continue to protect in the face of such intolerance. On a day to day basis, members of the LGBTI community are still stigmatised and victimised by taunts and insults.
As you may know, I have asked my officials to conduct a review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 to determine if amendments to the legislation or further measures are necessary to ensure the purposes of that Act are fully achieved. Where criminal offences such as assault, criminal damage or public order offences are committed, they are prosecuted through the wider criminal law. The trial judge can take any aggravating factors, such as a hate, racist, bias motivation, into account at sentencing. I will continue to monitor progress in this area.
Work will commence on this development of the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy later this year. We will also launch a public consultation process and I urge you to participate as fully as possible.
If you have any suggestions about how best to develop the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy, I know the officials in the Equality Division of my Department would be delighted to hear from you. The practical and creative skills you possess in the fields of communications, campaigning and social change will be invaluable in helping to ensure that the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy and the LGBTI Youth Strategy are appropriately focused and in ensuring that they can be implemented fully for the benefit both of members of the LGBTI community and of wider society. Your communication skills will be integral to keeping society up to date with developments, to explaining why further changes are necessary and to giving a human face to the pragmatic Strategies.
I am aware that there are delegates here from abroad. There are many countries where it is still illegal and dangerous to be a member of the LGBTI community. By bringing about positive change in Ireland, we can demonstrate solidarity with other communities and show the way forward to bring about full equality for LGBTI people across the globe.
One of the key lessons from Ireland’s experience of the marriage equality referendum was that related legislative change, such as the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, which was achieved prior to the referendum helped to clarify matters and to remove unnecessary arguments surrounding marriage equality from the public arena. This helped to improve clarity and to focus on the important issue of marriage equality. Such legislative change needed commitment, vision and drive at political and Governmental level. It also needed dedicated civil servants and cooperation from relevant NGOs to steer it to completion. I would urge you to plan and prepare properly for a desired change as that it makes it easier for change to occur.
Another element of achieving successful social change that I always encourage is political engagement with civil society. It is vital to get the representative bodies, interested parties and NGOs to talk to each other and to their political leaders. Other countries looking to Ireland for advice or example as to how to achieve marriage equality or other social change need to realise that the key is working together in partnership.
During the campaign for marriage equality, the LGBTI community in Ireland had a lot of visibility in the media. Individuals and groups stepped forward to recount their experience and to put the case for marriage equality in tangible, human terms which were easy for others to understand. When issues are put in dry theoretical or hypothetical terms, it can be difficult to comprehend the human elements of being a member of the LGBTI community. However when, during the marriage equality campaign, the key message was translated into life as someone’s son or daughter, or one’s colleague or neighbour, it became far easier to appreciate. Understanding leads to greater empathy which brings about inclusion. Now more than ever, we need champions of change to step forward to keep the momentum going. I would ask those of you here today to continue to strive for LGBTI rights. For those of you striving for other social change, bear in mind that making issues more accessible – more human – will help you to succeed.
In this year of commemorations, we can all draw from the inspiration of the 1916 leaders of the Irish Republic who proudly proclaimed equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens and promised to cherish all the children of the nation equally.
Ireland became a world leader on 22 May 2015 in accepting marriage equality. I know that Ireland can also become a world leader in providing a safe and inclusive society for LGBTI people of all ages. I look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve that and to achieving other important social change.
Finally, I now have the privilege of closing this event. I wish all of you an enjoyable evening.