I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Leader and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the flexible manner in which they have dealt with this Bill. It looked this morning as if we might not have this debate as the intention seemed to be to vote the Bill down. That would have been the end of it as the Bill would have been torpedoed. There was some turbulence on the Order of Business but the democratic resolution is that we are here this evening and will have the opportunity to hear views from all sides of the House and from all ranges of opinion. This will be helpful to me in advance of my submission to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution tomorrow. I hope to incorporate some of the reservations and fears people may have about this Bill when I am speaking to that august committee.
I understand that some people may have hesitations. I had a long-term relationship with an Israeli whom I recall saying that he thanked God I was gay because, otherwise, I would be the most square and conservative person in Europe. He was probably right and I might well have shared some of the views that will be expressed here this evening. However, through my lived human experience, I have come to different conclusions. It is on this basis, as well as on the basis of two years of hard work with an excellent team, that I have proposed this Bill.
The resolution we have come to is that the debate on the Bill will be adjourned at the conclusion of business. This means I will have an opportunity over the coming months to consider the advices of the Supreme Court, the constitutional review committee and the Law Reform Commission, which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has correctly raised. Even if I do not finish what I have to say this evening, I will have an opportunity to round up further on.
Change is inevitable. It is almost 20 years to the day since the enactment of the legislation which made contraception available for the first time. For younger people, this is quite an astonishing change. It is also inevitable that legislation such as that represented by this Bill will make its way on to the Statute Book. The only question is the means by which such legislation arrives there. I am joined in this view by eminent persons such as Professor William Binchy, who could not be regarded as a revolutionary figure. He is a careful, legal-minded person and he expressed these views at a conference I attended in the Incorporated Law Society in Blackhall Place.
Professor Binchy's view attained unanimous agreement among all those eminent legal people from different backgrounds. They agreed that this is coming and that the only question is the manner in which it is delivered. Will we get it through imposition from the European Court of Human Rights or our own courts? How often has the Oireachtas been chided by the courts for its apparent laziness or failure in facing up to social issues? Alternatively, will we accomplish this with dignity by the will of the Parliament of a free people?
The latter is my preference, especially if it were to be effected by this Bill. This would surely be timely. As I mentioned on the Order of Business, it is now some 50 years since the last legislation passed from this side of the House onto the Statute Book. That was a Bill sponsored by my late colleague, Professor W.B. Stanford, which provided for the humane treatment of pigs in abattoirs. Many would think the time has time for the Seanad to move on and to accept progressive legislation from these benches on the welfare of humans.
After all, this was the clear intention of the framers of the Constitution with regard to the function of the Seanad. It would also undoubtedly enhance the standing of this House in the eyes of the public to initiate legislation that addresses a real and substantial social issue at the heart of Irish society, instead of being — as all too often has been the impression — merely a rubber stamp for Government legislation. From a purely egotistical point of view, I believe this appropriate because when I got involved in the area of homosexual law reform some 30 years ago, homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence. It would bring my career in this area to a satisfying conclusion if my name were on the Bill that finally and definitively removed discrimination.
However, this is not a narrow item, nor is it confined to gay people. Instead, it addresses the principle of legal recognition of the rights of all couples in committed relationships outside the institution of marriage and their offspring. It is almost two years since I put together a small committee to work on these proposals and I pay tribute to its members. They included Mr. Deaglán Ó Caoimh, Ms Hilkka Becker, Mr. Chris Robson, Dr. Mary Lyons and a young student, Mr. Iain Gill. We were joined at a later stage by Professor Ivana Bacik of Trinity College, Dublin. I also wish to acknowledge the help I received from a member of staff in this House whose experience in draftsmanship proved invaluable as he gave advice freely and voluntarily in his own time.
We began by compiling a list of those specific areas in which people felt there was a significant, disproportionate and unfair advantage exercised by society against those outside the religious or State institution of matrimony. These areas included the right to inherit from a partner, to be included in pension rights and to be recognised as next-of-kin in cases of hospital visitations, for example. We first produced a lengthy and complicated Bill after a period of hard work. We found, however, that it was too bulky, lengthy and complicated.
Instead, we produced what is now before the House, a Bill which has the virtues of preciseness, simplicity, directness and effectiveness. As I have already indicated, we looked at the principle underlying the Bill. This philosophy was announced clearly in this House by a former Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghan-Quinn, when she indicated in response to a mean-minded amendment from this side of the House that it would require clear, cogent and factual reasons to cause her to introduce discrimination of any kind against an Irish citizen.
Moreover, it is clearly understood that this situation affects not only gay people but also heterosexuals outside of marriage. More than one third of births are to unmarried parents and the rights of cohabiting couples and their offspring must be safeguarded. There have been examples of the problems in this regard. Many of us, including the Leader, heard an interview on Joe Duffy's radio show last week with a young, gentle, inoffensive and decent woman who had been in a relationship with the love of her life. Upon his death after a period of years together the family was as sweet as pie until after the funeral when it closed in, in pursuit of the property and money in forms of rent. The family even got a mechanic to hot-wire the couple's car and persuaded the woman to hand over the registration book. The family possessed itself of everything in a squalid manner and this woman had no rights to defend herself against this. No one can suggest this is fair on a human basis. It has nothing to do with sex, it is an issue of fairness and decency.
In the area of tax, the brave and dignified couple, Katherine Zappone and Ann LouiseGilligan, have taken a case which is awaiting judgment and which the Minister has mentioned in his amendment. The tax situation has already been addressed in a minor way by this House as a result of material placed before it for consideration relating to the case of an elderly couple. The survivor was being charged because of his caring attitude as a spouse in placing the house in the name of his younger partner who subsequently died, which was not fair. We got support from all sides of the House and Mr. McCreevy honourably altered this provision. However, a piecemeal approach is not satisfactory as there is always the possibility of setbacks, which we had, I am sorry to say, for example, with what were called the "savage 16" cuts.
While many of them were reversed, a situation arose as a result of an appeal by a citizen to the Equality Tribunal where it was found that the spouse in a gay relationship had been denied rights of travel afforded to other spouses. Instead of addressing this inequality, which was brought to its attention by a body established by itself, the Government introduced legislation to copperfasten it by redefining the word "spouse". That was extraordinary and was a pity. It is the only instance I can recall of discriminatory legislation being introduced by a government within the European Union against gay citizens in the past ten years.
The Government said it was preparing catch-all legislation. However, when I spoke to the Taoiseach approximately one month ago, it was clear that no such steps had been taken. As a result of my discussions with the Taoiseach he indicated that he would refer the matter to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which I welcome. While I will make a submission to this committee, along with many other people I made submissions to a committee, which we believed to be more relevant, that was the committee on the family and marriage. However, these submissions were brushed aside.
Some people have felt a difficulty could exist regarding the constitutional position and have suggested that to grant a degree of recognition through a Bill such as this would be to undermine the institution of marriage and this would be unconstitutional. Our advice is that marriage would not be threatened or undermined as long as we did not purport to give greater rights to the new institution of civil partnership or make it an alternative more attractive than marriage. We did not do this.
The question of the common good was raised at the conference. I have no problem with dealing with this matter and I will supply evidence to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution that indicates that far from being inimical to the common good, supporting people in stable relationships creates a benefit for society in terms of the general increase in well being, in employment, in a drop in suicide statistics and in greater revenue yield — in other words in every measurable form. A recent article in the business press pointed out that major firms in the United States tend to locate in areas and cities with a vibrant and well-adjusted gay community. It is seen as one indicator of a vital, innovative society. Last year I spoke at the invitation of the managing director of IBM about a programme inside its organisation. The head of the entire network has instituted this programme not out of sentiment but because it is good business practice and it actually helps business.
I believe this forms part of Daniel O'Connell's wonderful argument when challenged as to whether Catholic emancipation would remove some advantages from the ruling class. He made the point that far from doing that, human rights and dignity were not a finite resource, which were diminished by being handed out to other people, rather they were enhanced and multiplied the more people in the country had such advantages.
A question was raised about the impact on the Exchequer and whether this measure would cost the State money. According to a detailed report published inThe Economist, the reverse appears likely to be true. In other words, a net benefit would accrue to the Exchequer with, for example, a smaller uptake of social welfare benefits. However, supposing there was a cost, I believe it could be justified anyway. It would mean that overpayments by single and gay people received by the State over many years would be redressed. In the past, society benefited disproportionately from taxes raised and distributed in ways that are of no use to a significant part of the population. In their initial phases necessary advances in our society have frequently appeared to cost money. Giving equal pay to women cost money. Would anybody now suggest that we should not have that provision? I shall address several areas tomorrow in my submission to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, including those of adoption and foreign relationships.
I know people are concerned about adoption. Owing to advances in our society whereby young women no longer go to Magdalene laundries or have their children taken away and sent to America, they now keep their children. Each year fewer than 100 babies are put up for adoption, which is administered by an adoption board. The principle, with which I strongly agree, is that the welfare of the child shall be paramount. However, in some cases one of the partners in a gay relationship is the biological parent. Why should they not adopt?
I must put on the record that civil partnership is not marriage. I believe in the separation of church and State. If the church should not be permitted to direct policy of the State, the same is true in reverse. The State has no right to instruct the church as to the way it should regard its own sacraments. I see no difficulty with this. I applaud and very much welcome the statements of people such as the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, firstly in his Littleton lecture and subsequently at a press conference, to the effect that addressing the social issues and correcting injustice is not incompatible with the teaching of the church.
I will also place before the All-Party Committee on the Constitution evidence showing that Ireland is now lagging well behind other countries in Europe in this area. This is not a dramatic or revolutionary proposal; it is a tentative attempt at change. I am very grateful to the Minister for being flexible, to the Leader of the House for being so accommodating and to my colleagues who made suggestions that were helpful. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and to continuing this debate, which will be adjourned this evening.