The Minister's performance last night was a shameful, shallow, rowdy, incoherent, arrogant and bombastic farce. As we have to accept he is not a stupid man, we can only be driven to the conclusion — if parliamentary decorum permits us to arrive at the logical conclusion — that his performance last night was deliberately deceitful and calculated to mislead the House, the visitors in the Visitors Gallery with a special interest in the issue and the wider general public. He masked his refusal to accept the Bill, even in terms of its broad general principles, by reference to the Constitution and the law. On nearly every point he made, he was entirely wrong. I repeat that I do not believe his inaccuracies were due to ignorance. There is something more malevolent at work. There is a patronising attempt at empathy and mock concern. At the heart of it, there is a refusal to address this issue and that refusal is based on reasons which are manufactured for the purpose and have no basis in reality.
The Minister made three specific points to which there are three specific and complete rebuttals. First, he claimed that the Bill attempted to pre-empt the Supreme Court decision in the appeal in the Zappone case, to which my colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, has made reference. For those who do not know, that case is about whether the Constitution and the law, as they stand, require the recognition in the State of a same-sex marriage celebrated a few years ago in Canada. The Minister states: "If the Supreme Court is to uphold the High Court and rule that it would be unconstitutional to recognise foreign marriages in this way, section 5 of this Bill would fall flat on its face." However, the High Court did not rule that it would be unconstitutional to give any form of recognition or status in our law to foreign same-sex marriages. There was no argument in the Zappone case about whether the Constitution prohibited recognition of foreign same-sex marriages. The only argument which was predictably lost was whether the Constitution already required such recognition before any law was passed on the issue.
The Labour Party Bill is concerned with what the law would be after it was passed; it would have no impact whatsoever on the issues to be decided in the Zappone case. Every first year law student knows this. The Minister must know it also, but when he cannot win an argument on logic and the facts, he resorts to under-hand tactics.
Second, the Minister criticises the Bill for what it does not do. He says it does not address the position of cohabitants. When it was pointed out to him that this was a separate issue, he replied:
It is not a separate issue. It is the same issue. It is the same issue, namely, there are people in our society who are not in a position to enter into a marriage, for one reason or another, but who want to have legal recognition for the attributes of mutual dependency which arise out of their relationship.
He further stated: "The Government wants to deliver a framework in which all non-married couples, including gay couples, can live in a supportive and a secure legal environment." That statement betrays the Minister's complete unawareness of the issues involved. Cohabitation relationships between heterosexual couples involve people who could marry but choose not to do so. What is at issue is the status of people who want to do more than cohabit but who are prevented from marrying. If the Minister cannot yet see and appreciate that point, he has been talking and listening to no one. His approach is to bundle together same-sex couples who are not married because they cannot marry with those couples for whom cohabitation is a matter of lifestyle choice. His approach is ignorant, patronising and blinkered. That he fully understands the point I am making but is seeking to obscure and confuse it is best exemplified by a passage from a speech he delivered at the conference on the legal status of cohabitants and same-sex couples held on 26 May 2006:
Heterosexual couples have the option of marriage open to them. If we are to offer them something with all the rights and entitlements of a valid marriage, it should also have the same duties attaching to it. Indeed the rights of one partner are often the duties of the other. In effect it is marriage, albeit by another name. It is doubtful whether there are any advantages to providing in the law for an institution for opposite sex couples which mirrors marriage.
The situation, of course, is different for same-sex couples for whom marriage is prohibited. I want to take this opportunity to put it on the public record that the Government are unequivocally in favour of treating gay people as full, equal citizens in our society.
This is from the man's own mouth. However, that was then when generalised blandishments would suffice but this is now when a decision directly confronts him and his colleagues in government; hence the undignified retreat and the furious and noisy attempts to hide his back-tracking.
Third, the Minister's amendment notes that the Bill "appears" to be unconstitutional. It does not state why and the Minister in his speech did not provide much detail. He did suggest that it might breach the State's obligation to guard with special care the institution of marriage on which the family is founded and to protect it against attack. Presumably, he is not arguing that those of a homosexual orientation should reconcile themselves to the married state or that offering civil union for same-sex couples would lure heterosexuals away from marriage. If he is not saying that, on what conceivable basis is he arguing that making specific provision for same-sex couples would have any effect whatsoever on an institution that is at present confined to opposite-sex couples?
Absurdly, the Bill is mocked for being too short. According to this big, swinging Minister, we are trying to achieve in ten sections something that required 264 sections in the United Kingdom. The argument is absurd because it ignores the fact that precisely the same outcome was achieved in a Vermont statute with seven sections and a Canadian statute which had 15. Last year the Minister himself introduced a Bill with just 38 sections but such is his unhealthy fascination with statute size that by the time he was finished with it he had added 159.
The purpose of a Second Stage debate is to elucidate the general principles of a Bill. The Bill before the House contains within it one single over-riding principle, the principle of equality. The principle of equality is at once simple and unsettling, often unwelcomed, yet ultimately unquenchable and undeniable. The principle of equality is founded on the bond of our common humanity. It is based on our recognition in each other of an essential shared human experience. Our shared humanity is far greater than any difference in how we look, how we pray, what our capabilities are, or how we choose a partner in life. The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has written that every ethical system put forward for the organisation of society contains within it a notion of equality. It could not be otherwise. To deny equality is to look another in the eye and proclaim him or her to be a lesser person. It is to deny the bond of our common humanity.
The Civil Unions Bill 2007, introduced by Deputy Howlin, is about equality. It would offer same-sex couples the greatest measure of equality possible under the Constitution. It would afford same-sex couples access to a status relationship similar to marriage in every practical way. It would provide thousands of our fellow citizens with a vital legal protection and bring to an end countless forms of discrimination that they encounter in their daily lives. The Bill would give this Legislature the opportunity to fulfil its constitutional role which is to legislate. Too often in the past, this body has dodged difficult decisions. Too often we have left issues unaddressed or left the courts too pick up after our undone work. Too often it has been left to courageous individuals such as Senator Norris to ask the courts for justice which ought to have been afforded them by this body. Tonight we have an opportunity to do the work that the people sent us here to do. The Government wants to postpone; it wants to put off; it wants to defer. There is no requirement for delay. There is nothing that the House can do in six months time that it cannot do in the next six weeks, or in whatever number of days remains to this Dáil. The Government has the opportunity to amend the Bill if it wants to. There is plenty of time for constructive engagement on Committee Stage and ample time to pass all Stages before the House falls.
Members should not smile and pretend they are deeply concerned about equality. They should not believe photo-opportunities and expressions of concern are a substitute for how they vote on the Bill. They should not pretend, as the Minister does, that the Bill is somehow flawed. It is not. They should vote for the Bill and afford it the priority it deserves.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said on that famous day when he proclaimed his dream of equality, he had come to remind us of "the fierce urgency of now." He said: "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism." This is not a matter than can be lightly deferred. It is a matter of justice and equality that affects the daily lives of thousands of people — people who live in committed relationships but are denied the simple rights that married couples take for granted. To delay is not to compromise. To delay is to add to, not subtract from, the inequality in society. To delay is to look our fellow citizens in the eye and dismiss the common bond of humanity. Tonight all those who say they support the Bill have the opportunity to walk into the voting lobby and support it in the name of equality.