WELL DONE, Deputy Mattie McGrath! In the recent referendum on Same Sex Marriage, he campaigned for the NO vote. In this, he stood alone, amongst the elected representatives of Tipperary, in taking what proved to be the far more difficult and unpopular route in reaching a democratic conclusion.
He was just one of six Dáil deputies who stood up and spoke up, when acquiescant silence might have been the more expedient political option, and ultimately wiser option. The profession of politics has suffered badly in public opinion in recent years. Many would say the “bad name” has been justified, because the absence of legitimate debate and constructive analysis and criticism, seriously contributed to the economic depression and the consequent austerity through which we have been living.
There was no independent political voice to challenge the behaviour of the banks. No politician broke the Party ranks to seriously question what was happening, and if they were tempted to do so, they risked being identified by Bertie Ahern as “lullahs - who should go and commit suicide.”
The Party system was so entrenched and so circumscribed that neither conscience nor common sense permitted dissent. There was no lone voice to question where we were going as a country, and so - as the mantra now goes - we are where we are.
But in the debate on the recent Constitutional Amendment, Deputy McGrath was a lone voice amongst his peers in Tipperary and his colleagues in the Dáil. The voice may not have been one which we wanted to hear, nor one with which a majority agreed, but it had a legitimacy and a relevance and in stepping out from the clearly popular consensus it has to be admired and applauded.
Consensus is a cosy safe option, especially in the circumstances of the recent referendum. It took courage to expose oneself to the accusation of discrimination against a significant number of one’s friends and relatives, and maybe siblings and children, who may be gay. As the conversations and the debates evolved that accusation proved to be entirely wrong. And if anything emerged from the process - apart from the ultimate result - it was the insight which the discussions revealed on yet another aspect of the many complexities of being human.
It was also difficult to be seen to take the NO side on an issue which was presented under the emotive buzz words of love and compassion and equality, or which was articulated with such emotion by the former President Mary McAleese. Bearing in mind her academic and legal background, her contribution raised the issue of objectivity when faced with the very personal.
There is little need to now rehash the arguments on the No side and on which Deputy McGrath performed so well. Always re-affirming that he was in no way “anti-gay,” he argued, as many other people did, on the character and definition of marriage, on the father-mother component of the family, and the legalities of definition in the context of the other modules in our Constitution on “The Family.”
He wrote a measured and thought-provoking article in “The Irish Times” outlining the many problems which may ensue over time, and which were also mentioned by the Archbishop of Dublin - the unforseen consequences. His “Irish Times” contribution drew from one begruding commentator that “Mattie knows something about the law.”
And indeed, it is in the interpretation of the law that future clever lawyers may find a gold-mine. The proposed amendment was introduced without any real legislative preparation. It is essentially a fulfilment of an agreement with the Labour Party in the formation of the Coalition: it was Labour’s “baby.” The urgent question of surrogacy has not been dealt with; neither has the question of the right of a child’s access to the identity of a biological father or mother in a same-sex union.
The latter issue is challenging in view of the recent debates about the children sent to the United Sates from the Mother and Baby Homes. the fact that many of these children, as adults, experienced an overwhelming compulsion to find their biological parents, occupied media space for many months.
The same media was almost universally, in its opinion pieces, on the side of the YES vote, as indeed were many so-called celebrities. In fact, in some of the radio and television interviews, there was barely concealed hostility in tone and body language towards the NO vote. Here, Deputy McGrath stood up to all the challenges with good grace.
Two-thirds of Irish citizens voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage, a very impressive majority. But a third of voters did not. They have, inaccurately it seems to me, been described as conservative, but the are not an insignificant minority. Breda O’Brien, a columnist in “The Irish Times” and a NO campaigner, has asked who will now represent them in the Dáil. Who indeed? Is it possible that if Mattie McGrath stays in politics he will serve a much larger constituency than the people of his Tipperary homeland.