The vote for marriage equality was one of the most positive uplifting developments in Ireland in recent years. It gave LGBT people basic rights but it also sent out a signal that the old Ireland of De Valera and John Charles McQuaid was dead and gone.
That Ireland led to huge levels of discrimination against gay people. Back in the dark days of the 1980s, for example, the Gardaí thought nothing of rounding up 1,500 gay men when they were investigating the murder of Charles Self.
Even as late as 1998, an ill named Employment Equality Act allowed church run institutions to discriminate against employees who did not fit in with their “ethos.” It was a way of intimidating gay teachers, in particular.
The vote on marriage equality does not change all the latent homophobic prejudice that was built up over decades. But it knocked back the bigots who stirred it up.
In particular, the vote represented a major blow to the power of the bishops. During the referendum they used their money and church pulpits to try to frame the debate as being about “caring for children.” Coming from an organisation that systematically covered up for child abuse, this was a sick joke. It was an insidious attempt to stir up insecurities about the need to return to “natural families.” But it did not work because Irish people today live in a variety of loving relationships.
After the vote, there is a new momentum to rid the country of other measures that restrict liberty and choice.
Top of the agenda must be the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution. This absurd clause equates the life of a woman with a few days old foetus. It has led to a barbaric situation where women are still forced to carry through with pregnancies even when they have been raped or where a foetus cannot survive.
When Clare Daly moved a bill in the Dáil, to call for a referendum on the issue, the massed ranks of Labour and Fine Gael voted her proposal down.
Their own measure to liberalise rules on abortion, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, was also minimal. A woman is forced to appear before psychiatrists before she can procure a right to abortion. Anyone assisting in the use of an abortion pill can be jailed for over fourteen years.
We should push on to scrap this medieval nonsense.
We should also end the control that the Catholic church exercises over our schools and hospitals. One of the shocking features of Irish society is that the state does not assume any responsibility for educating primary school children. Instead it hands over this function to voluntary bodies – which, in most cases, are churches.
We need a country where education and health treatment does not depend on religious institutions. All references to the ‘undermining of the religious ethos’ of schools and hospitals must be removed.
We should also carry the fight for marriage equality across the border. Northern Ireland remains one of the last outposts of bigots who use the bible and “God’s word” to deny gay people basic rights.
But equality must also mean more than just equal treatment before the law. Formally, Ireland is a more equal country after the passage of the marriage referendum. But there are other social rights that demand a change in economic arrangements.
Everyone may now have a right to marry but, for some, the exercise of that right is difficult because they have nowhere to live. The cutbacks on social housing have deprived them of a right to live in decent conditions.
Similarly, we all have a formal right to good health. But in practice some people must wait for years in pain because they do not have private health insurance.
Formal legal rights are also based on citizenship and those excluded from that category face abominable conditions. Asylum seekers, for example, are forced to live in special direct provision hostels for up to ten years and survive on €19 a week.
The referendum was won because it touched on a basic aspiration for equality. But while a victory was won, we still have a long way to go before real equality is achieved. As the anniversary of the 1916 Rising approaches, let’s step up efforts to really make Ireland an equal society.