The Oireacthas debates on a bill that will give rights to gay parents and their children that are not included in Civil Partnerships took place last week. Adam Long was there for The Outmost, and reports on the current state of play.
The opening stages of a very important debate took place in the Oireachtas last week that directly impacts on the lives of many in the LGBT community. The Family & Relationships Bill proposes a comprehensive overhaul of family law in Ireland to recognise the many diverse family forms that now exist in our society, including same-sex couples and their children.
This legislation is long overdue and will put in place vital legal protections for many families who are currently invisible in the eyes of the State. It is especially welcome from a child welfare perspective, as it will, in the case of children being raised by same-sex parents, allow for a legal bond to be established between the child and the non-biological parent.
The failure to provide for the rights of children being raised by same-sex couples was seen as the most glaring omission from the Civil Partnership Bill, although as the Marriage Equality group found, there are 169 differences in total between Civil Partnership and the rights that flow from full marriage.
On coming to office, Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter made a firm commitment to end the inequalities faced by same-sex headed families. He also quite correctly pointed out that not only is improving the rights of same-sex parents and their children not an attack on what is termed the ‘traditional nuclear family’, but that such a term is a relatively recent invention – a construct created around the middle of the last century to advance an ideological concept of family in keeping with the strong social conservatism of that conformist era. The reality of course is that families have always existed in many different shapes and sizes and it’s a question of the legal position reflecting those existing realities.
The Family & Relationships Bill will also address another strange anomaly in the current law relating to adoption – while single LGBT people are allowed to apply for what is known as stranger adoption, same-sex couples, and indeed all unmarried couples, are prohibited from doing so. No one could argue with any credibility that this meets the best interests of children, and so the Bill proposes to allow same-sex couples in Civil Partnerships to be able to apply to adopt children on the same basis as married heterosexual couples. Of course when marriage is finally opened up to same-sex couples in Ireland, this will simply not be an issue.
A number of child advocacy, LGBT and other groups gathered before the Justice, Defence and Equality Committee of the Oireachtas last week to offer their views on the draft legislation and to be quizzed by TDs and Senators. The overwhelming sentiment among those present, not least from the children’s rights groups, was that this is a progressive, reforming and ‘child centred’ Bill that will finally tackle the legal limbo that many families have had to live in for far too long. Most TDs and Senators also welcomed the legislation, reflecting the cross party support it enjoys from both government and opposition.
There were notable, if somewhat predictable exceptions however. Senator Ronan Mullen, the arch religious conservative with a long track record of opposing LGBT rights, decried what he saw as awful legislation and went on to question in a rather hostile fashion how representative the child advocacy groups were on this issue. Considering the unanimous view of all the main children’s rights organisations in Ireland that the protections outlined in the Bill are not only welcome but in fact very necessary, it is safe to say that the their views are indeed reflective of their members and those involved in the child welfare sector.
It was also pointed out in the course of the discussion that the Special Rapporteur For Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, is on record as calling for all family forms to be afforded legal equality. Dr. Shannon has been sharply critical of the absence of any provision for the rights of children in existing same-sex headed families and how the invisibility in law of the non-biological parent has a negative impact in terms of child welfare. All these points seemed lost on Senator Mullen, however. He appeared more interested in political posturing rather than engaging in any constructive way with the majority of the groups before the Committee.
Along with Mullen, ex-Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames also expressed opposition to the proposed reforms. Healy-Eames is guilty of inconsistency on these issues – to borrow a phrase from another context, she was for protecting the rights of same-sex families and their children before she was against it. As recently as a 2009 debate in the Seanad, she criticised the lack of protections for LGBT couples co-parenting children, but in direct contrast to the evolution of the rest of Irish society towards greater acceptance and understanding of LGBT issues, Healy-Eames has regressed in her views, possibly to gel better with the small number of other former Fine Gael legislators who were thrown out of that party for voting against abortion legislation that finally gave effect to the Supreme Court ruling in the X Case.
As someone who watched the proceedings in Leinster House last week, I was heartened at the strong support for this very necessary legislation. It is currently only in draft form and it is imperative that it is put on the statute books as quickly as possible to remedy the clear flaws that exist in this area. It was also interesting to observe those thankfully minority voices who like to wax lyrical about their commitment to ‘family values’ but who believe that some families should be kept outside the law and relegated to second-class status – which has the practical effect of punishing children because of the sexual orientation of their parents.
And in terms of next year’s referendum on marriage equality, it is important to have this legislation concluded in advance. With polls showing consistently strong support among Irish people for the right of same-sex couples to marry, it is clear that the strategy of our opponents will be to muddy the waters as much as possible by introducing false and misleading arguments into the debate, especially relating to children.