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Why ‘No’ Now?

If you’re living outside of Ireland at the moment, you might be unaware that our little country is going to the polls next month to vote in two referendums. The first (which I’m not going to discuss at any great length just yet) is to change the constitution to allow those over the age of 21 to be elected president. The other offers Irish people the chance to change the constitution in order to make marriage equally available to people regardless of their sex. If passed, the amendment would read:

              ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex’.

Personally, I think that’s a glorious idea. I think it is a wonderful idea to make marriage available to people who want to get married. Let’s think, for a moment, about what marriage actually is. It started as a way to bind two people together in order to protect assets; it was commonly used to join the estates of two families of equal standing. Sometimes, one party would be wealthier, in the financial sense, than the other. In those cases, the less financially well-off person would bring something else – social cachet, considerable beauty or the willingness to marry the gimpy son of the wealthy merchant – to the partnership. Marriage also served as a way to try to ensure – in the days before DNA tests – that the children men were raising were their own. Within the confines of a marriage, people were contractually obliged to have sex with no one but their individual spouses.

That brings me to another point; long before it was about love and fluffy stuff, marriage was about the legalities of safeguarding wealth and property within the confines of the marriage and with regard to inheritance. Marriage was and still is a legally binding contract. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the same sex all the time. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the opposite sex all the time. No one bats an eyelid. Why shouldn’t men and women enter into legally binding contracts with whomever they want whenever they want?

These days, our understanding and expectations of marriage have changed to incorporate an assumption that the two parties are deeply in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together based on that love. The legally binding contract bit hasn’t gone away, however. (Though it has changed a bit to reflect that women are not regarded as property; rape within marriage is illegal, violence within marriage is illegal and a husband can no longer sue another man for ‘lack of consort’ if his wife has an affair).

Many people still choose to get married in accordance with their religious beliefs, and this referendum – if passed – will not change that. Religious marriages, however, are not civil marriages. Anyone who gets married in a religious ceremony also needs to have a civil marriage in order for their marriage to be legally recognised. That is why the argument some religious people have against equal marriage perplexes me: equal marriage is about civil marriage, not religious marriage of any denomination. The terms and conditions (for want of a better way of putting it) of religious marriages will not change if the constitution does.

The ‘argument’ that children will be adversely affected if they are brought up by two loving parents is just an exercise in casuistry, not an argument at all. Not to mention that it’s rather irrelevant if you refer back to the wording of the proposed change in the constitution.

In November 2012, we had the opportunity to vote in another referendum. At that time, I was open about my intention to vote ‘No’. It was an unpopular stance; many people I know and respect were voting ‘Yes’ and campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote.  While I disagreed with them, I could understand their point, I could see where they were coming from. This time around, however, I can’t say that. There are many people who are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote and I would really like to understand why. So far, I haven’t heard a single real argument against equal marriage. Maybe this is because there isn’t one, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t been pointed in the right direction.

If you feel that a ‘No’ vote is required on May 22nd, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to understand your objection and engage with it.

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