When chairman Tom Arnold just after 1pm yesterday announced the result of the constitutional convention vote in favour of extending civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, a huge cheer rose from the back of the hall where dozens of campaigners for same-sex marriage had gathered to hear the news.
At once, the stresses of a long, highly-charged weekend seemed to give way.
Raucous applause filled the room. Gay rights activists hugged one another; a couple of TDs shed a tear.
It was a remarkable finale to a weekend that would have strained the convictions of the most ardent convention-sceptics.
Ireland’s experiment in deliberative democracy is not to everyone’s liking. Its remit is narrower than some would like; others are wary of the fact that the Government has retained the power not to act on the forum’s recommendations.
But this debate did at least prove it’s possible to have a smart, civil, respectful and informed discussion on a complex and sensitive social issue and to arrive at a clear conclusion. It even proved politicians are capable of sticking to speaking-time limits.
Some participants, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald among them, admitted the margin of victory was a little wider than expected, but the tone of the discussion from Saturday afternoon suggested things were moving that way.
Following explanations from legal experts of the current constitutional position, three groups on either side of the argument gave thoughtful presentations and took questions from the floor.
Early interventions revealed some serious reservations. A number of citizens asked whether same-sex marriage could be introduced by legislation rather than constitutional change and worried that two days was not enough for such a complex question.
One man said he felt same-sex marriage was unnatural, and echoed David Quinn of the Iona Institute in arguing there was nothing wrong with treating different situations differently in law.
A TD remarked that, at his table, two members were in favour of giving same-sex couples the same rights as married couples, but couldn’t accept calling it marriage.
The mood shifted noticeably on Saturday afternoon when it became clear the balance of opinion was moving towards the case for constitutional change. Two young people, Clare O’Connell and Conor Pendergrast, made powerful personal remarks on being raised as happy, well-rounded children of same-sex parents.
Then, one after another, members stood up and gave passionate arguments for change. Among them were representatives of all the main parties, and two in particular – Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer and John Lyons of Labour, both of whom are gay – won applause for their raw, heartfelt speeches.
“We can call it what we want, but refusing to allow same-sex couples to marry through the eyes of the State is discrimination,” said Lyons to a silent hall.
“The blood that flows through my veins is the same as the blood that flows through anybody else’s veins. And to treat me differently because of who I sleep with at the end of the day, or who I choose to say I love is a form of discrimination. And a State that allows that to happen is not a State that I think I would like to bring people into or be proud of.”
During roundtable discussions on Saturday morning, this reporter overheard one citizen – a man in his early 20s – lean back in his chair and tell a facilitator: “It’s just wrong; it’s just wrong.” Later that day, he was applauding Colm O’Gorman’s account of his daily life with his husband and two children.
Not everyone was pleased by yesterday’s result.
. Independent Senator Rónán Mullen criticised the decision not to put questions about freedom of conscience to delegates, while the Catholic Communications Office said only the people of Ireland could amend the Constitution – a reminder that this was only the first hurdle in what could be a long journey.
But the day belonged to the supporters of same-sex marriage. “This sends a loud signal to the rest of the world about the value the Irish people place on equality, diversity and inclusiveness,” said Jerry Buttimer as he emerged from a melee of cheering supporters.
Ruadhan Mac Cormaic