I welcome the opportunity to speak. I want to make some general points on the Bill but I also want to comment on some of the points that have been made in regard to conscience and a free vote, which I will come to later. I will begin by commending the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for the manner in which he has dealt with this legislation. This Bill must be acknowledged as a major step on a journey from intolerance to equality. It is major step towards removing the suffering of a highly significant number of men and women within the Irish population. As I said this morning on the Order of Business, when the legislation was passed in the Dáil, there were many people around Leinster House and I met a young man who, unprompted, said to me "This legislation will change my life." He meant every word of that. Clearly, this legislation will impact on the quality of people's lives in Ireland.
The Bill represents a further step in the incorporation of human rights thinking into domestic law by providing more equitable treatment of persons of different sexual orientations. It will undermine further the prejudice against gay and lesbian citizens. This Bill is by no means perfect and does not address all the issues affecting gay couples, which I regret. I hope the promised guardianship legislation will deal with some of the issues which I know will be addressed during the course of Committee Stage of this legislation.
I will recap briefly the experience both in Ireland and internationally for gay people. Secrecy and suffering is what, for generations, was offered to gay people. Many within the heterosexual majority were hardly aware of the issue, except from occasional newspaper reports cast in such coded words that readers were unclear as to why these men were going to prison. We still hear reports internationally about this happening and we have a moral obligation to continue to speak out against this, as we have done in this House recently.
The steps which lead us to this historic point are easily forgotten but they should not be. These steps were taken by individuals of courage, such as our own colleague in this House and the many members of the campaigning organisations who for so long and until relatively recently were isolated, undermined and got very little support. I am thankful that has changed. It was extraordinary to hear Senator Norris speaking about the number of people he knows who have been murdered because of their sexual orientation.
I was pleased to be in the Dáil at a time when a woman and Fianna Fáil Minister, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, led the charge against the criminalisation of homosexuality. There is a very well known story about how two mothers of young gay men visited her, speaking with pride about their sons as any mothers would. These were not any mothers but had listened to their sons telling them about discovering they were different. They did not choose to be different and did not want to be different but it was just the way they were. It was as simple and challenging as that.
As President McAleese recently remarked, homosexuality is a discovery, not a decision, and for many it is a discovery made against a backdrop where within their immediate circle of family and friends, as well as the wider society, they have long encountered anti-gay attitudes which do little to help them deal openly and healthily with their own sexuality.
It took courage for those two young men to out themselves to their mothers and it took even more courage for the mothers to come to an understanding of what they had been told and to speak to a Minister for Justice about changing a law that made criminals out of two young men. As a woman and mother, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn identified with and sympathised with these people but the task, from a legislative perspective, was not about sympathy. Our task was not to approve what was then called a lifestyle but to legislate for the public good. We had to assess whether the law as it stood served that end. It clearly did not have a positive outcome for society and merely terrorised and criminalised people, and that led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country.
It must be said that society did not fall apart and individuals who believed homosexuality was wrong and sinful did not change their beliefs. They were and are entitled to those beliefs, and it is worth stating that for some of my colleagues those beliefs amount to convictions essential to the holder's sense of self. In the past there has sometimes been an unwillingness to fully understand how fundamental are the convictions on the opposing side. There has been a tendency to caricature and stereotype. It is a measure of how far we have come as a society that this has not happened, for the most part, during the debate on this civil partnership Bill. Deep convictions have been expressed without drawing down the crude condemnatory caricatures seen so much in the past.
I was struck recently when thinking about this legislation about some of the newspaper reports on the death of US Senator Robert Byrd, particularly how over a lifetime his attitudes towards race changed. As he looked, listened and debated, his views changed radically from being someone who was racially discriminatory to someone with a greater understanding of inequality. Many of us have been on journeys with regard to equality and it is good to see the kind of change he spoke about so much of towards the end of his life.
Senators Labhrás Ó Murchú and Harris referred to the quality of the debate in this House, which is important. As a society we must be able to hold, tolerate and manage quite different viewpoints. This legislation addresses the totality of two individuals, their mutual commitment and their rights and place in society. It protects two men or women who have chosen to commit their lives to each other. The legal validation implicit in the Bill is of that commitment and mutual support on the part of individuals who have established a stable relationship.
Some say civil partnership is a threat to marriage. I simply ask how people can logically arrive at that conclusion. Those who opt for civil partnership when it becomes law are no threat to marriage and it will complement marriage. Many couples cohabit rather than marry but that is not because of a civil partnership Bill but wider societal issues which we can all address in different ways. To discriminate against couples who wish to state in legal terms how much they value their relationship would not support marriage or persuade one of those cohabiting couples to walk up the aisle together. Those who avail of civil partnership are those who know the importance of stability in society and wish, for the most part, to support that stability.
There is an issue with the language used around this Bill. The reality is that discrimination still exists and we have heard the insults still hurled around the playgrounds in this country. One of the most frequently used insults in the playground is the accusation that another child is gay. This does not happen by accident and is based on a deep fear that finds violent expression in sometimes lethal attacks on gay people. Sometimes that leads to the majority using certain language around the Bill we are discussing today. When we use that language in speaking about tolerance and compassion, we are using the language of the dominant group. It is not that appropriate in terms of the debate we are having.
The phrase "free vote" in some way seems to imply that to vote as a political party on the issue is a diminution of freedom. That is to ignore the deep level of discussion, argument, advocacy, point and counterpoint which has certainly happened in Fine Gael and which will have happened in most political parties. It is a deeply democratic process that should be valued. To devalue the process and abandon it by removing the Whip, for example, is to separate it from a profoundly democratic process.
At this stage, I pay tribute to former Senator Sheila Terry for the work she did on the issue.