Australia is one of the last English speaking, developed nations in the world to legislate for marriage equality. Another is Northern Ireland. While formally a region of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland does not allow same-sex couples to marry despite it being legal in England, Wales and Scotland.
In the South of Ireland marriage equality is also legal but reform has been blocked in the North by the regional Assembly. The largest party in the Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has held back progress despite poll after poll showing a majority of people (including at least half of all DUP supporters) support marriage equality.
As has been the case in Australia, marches involving tens of thousands of people have called for equality to be granted by the passing of legislation. However, these calls have failed to achieve real change due to the stubbornness of the DUP and the inefficacy of their opponents. So too have multiple attempts to change the law through the courts.
Most recently, appeals made to politicians in Westminster have similarly fallen on deaf ears. It is increasingly apparent that the major parties have no interest in granting LGBTIQ people in Northern Ireland equal marriage rights and people are increasingly open to the idea of a referendum on the issue.
The fact that the major parties have dragged their feet on marriage equality should come as no surprise. Equal rights have never been freely handed down to ordinary people from on high. It has only been through campaigning, and the building of movements, that support has been won, and that rights have been granted.
An example of how campaigns can be successful was seen in the South of Ireland in May 2015. After decades of struggle against an entrenched, conservative elite, activists achieved the historic overturning of the established doctrine of ‘traditional marriage’. In a referendum on the issue the ‘Yes’ vote won a resounding 62%!
While equality campaigners had forced the government to recognise civil partnerships in 2010, LGBTIQ people wanted full and real equality. This is a call echoed loudly in Australia today. It was continued pressure from grassroots organisations that forced the otherwise conservative Fine Gael led coalition to hold a referendum on the issue.
As in Australia today, many people were rightly concerned about exposing LGBTIQ people to the vitriol of anti-equality campaigners during the referendum. But far from allowing bigots free rein, supporters of marriage equality rose to the challenge.
In 2014, anti-equality campaigners at a Galway University were sent packing by hundreds of students, who protested at their stall for several hours. Similar acts of peaceful protest sent the message loud and clear; that LGBTIQ people did not stand alone.
Throughout the referendum campaign there was an outpouring of support for the LGBTIQ community and this largely drowned out the anti-equality message. In Ireland, it was working class and young people, who registered and turned out to vote in their thousands, many travelling from overseas, that helped win such an emphatic victory.
One campaign slogan of the ‘No’ camp in the South of Ireland was “every child deserves a mother and a father”. This is eerily similar to the message of the ‘No’ camp in Australia who appeal to an idealised version of family which bears no relation to the diverse reality. The ‘No’ camp’s slogan was outed as an insult, not only to LGBTIQ couples already raising children, but also to any single mothers and fathers doing the same.
In a short period of twenty-two years, stereotypically conservative Ireland moved from still criminalising LGBTIQ people in 1993, to recognising their right to marry in 2015. This was not won through the courts or handed down by parliamentary decree, but through years of struggle.
After more than thirteen years of campaigning, Australians are now offered a similar opportunity. While the postal plebiscite somewhat hobbles the ‘Yes’ campaign, the opportunity to overturn this form of discrimination exists. It is vital that people get involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign to get the best possible result.
Current polls suggest that a ‘Yes’ result is within reach. The strongest possible campaign is needed to, firstly turn the poll results into a reality, and secondly to ensure that the non-binding result translates into legislative change.
Marriage equality is a milestone in the struggle for equality, not the finish line. Homophobic bullying, assaults and intolerance still have a detrimental impact on LGBTIQ people, even in countries where marriage equality has been won.
Inequality, division, and the misery it causes is etched into the heart of capitalism, a system that breeds inequality. It is only by replacing this system with a democratic socialist alternative that society can get rid of scourges such as discrimination and oppression, and prioritise equality for all.
By Eóin Dawson