The Long Slog of Emancipation: Tá, Comhionannas.

National Post, Ottawa Citizen, May 20, 2015.

“In this my native land – in the land of my sires – I am degraded without fault or crime, as an alien and an outcast. We do not, my lord, deserve this treatment. We are stamped by the Creator with no inferiority; and man is guilty of injustice when he deprives us of our just station in society.”

Those words could have come from a troop-rallying speech to get out the Yes vote for Friday’s gay-marriage referendum in the Irish Republic – the historic plebiscite that has been offhandedly characterized as a sort of do-or-die battle between the Catholic Ireland of old and the new, liberal and European Ireland. But those words were spoken by the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish champion of Catholic Emancipation, in July, 1812.

It would take until 1829 for the British House of Commons to enact O’Connell’s Roman Catholic Relief Act. It would take another century to overturn a corpus of English law that had debased and disenfranchised the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish since 1607: no Catholic could attend Trinity College in Dublin, or serve as a barrister, a judge or a teacher, or stand for election to public office, or vote, or own a horse worth more than £5. Intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants was banned. No Catholic could adopt an orphan.

Daniel O'Connell addressing the crowd in J. Haverty's The Monster Meeting in the Irish Highlands, Clifden (1843).

Until the Irish government decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, Ireland’s gays and lesbians were still carrying the discriminatory burdens that came with the continued application of the British Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. It’s taking quite a while for the Irish to get out from under the Vatican’s old yoke, too, and it is not a simple story of Irish Catholics having carried too much old-timey obscurantism with them into the 21st century.

It’s mainly because Éamon de Valera, the last president of the 1922 Irish Free State, granted the Vatican a kind of veto power over the provisions of the 1937 constitution that secured full republican independence. It was De Valera’s wish that Ulster’s six counties would one day rejoin the 26-county republic, but that no matter what happened Ireland would remain not just Catholic, but drearily devout and obedient to Rome. That’s what the Vatican wanted, too.

What Irish citizens are being asked on Friday is whether they will consent to the addition of the following sentence to the Irish constitution’s Article 41: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” All of Ireland’s main political parties are backing the Yes side. Ireland’s turf accountants – the country’s oddsmakers and bookies – are calling a win, so long as the Yes supporters roust themselves to actually take the trouble to cast their ballots.

It has been a long slog.

Over the objections of the Catholic hierarchy, Ireland’s ban on contraception was repealed in 1980, but the Vatican’s campaigning played a key role in establishing a constitutional ban on abortion in 1983. It took two constitutional amendments in 1992 to ease the abortion ban, if only slightly. It took a national referendum and a constitutional amendment in 1995 just to repeal Ireland’s ban on divorce. A limited right to abortion was established by statute in 2013, and only four months ago another attempt was made to widen the right.

In these ways the arguments have carried on. It’s not as though Friday’s marriage-equality referendum is a matter of the Irish suddenly waking up from centuries of Popish slumber. No country has ever put the issue of gay marriage to a national referendum. This is a first.

It was only last February that same-sex marriage was legalized in Scotland, and a month later in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, it’s hardline Protestants who have been most vocal in their opposition, and the provincial assembly has voted several times against same-sex marriage, most recently on April 27.

In the Irish republic, the Catholic clergy has rabble-roused a bit, but most of the opposition is coming from activist groups within the Catholic laity. The No vote has raised some good points, too. Limerick’s Bishop Brendan Leahy, for instance, insists that the Yes campaign hasn’t taken Ireland’s school system into account. The Catholic Church runs almost all of Ireland’s primary schools, and church leaders have made it clear they don’t want their near-monopoly anymore. “What will we be expected to teach children in school about marriage?” Bishop Leahy wants to know.

But there are outspoken Yes supporters even among the Catholic clergy. The roughly 1,000 members of the Association of Catholic Priests is split equally on the referendum question, says Association organizer Fr. Brendan Hoban. Writing in the Irish Times on Monday, Fr Gerard Moloney, editor of the Redemptorist order’s magazine Reality, said he’ll be voting Yes on Friday, because the church should mind its own business: “While I see it as a sacrament, I believe it’s up to the citizens of the State to decide how they define marriage and who can enter into it.”

While Canadians like to boast about being out in front on the issue of equality in matters of sexual orientation, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s 2005 gay marriage law was adopted only after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same common-law rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. Only six years earlier, in 1999, the Liberals backed a Reform Party motion opposing same-sex marriage.

After he formed his first government in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went ahead with a promised free vote on gay marriage, and when the vote was defeated Harper declared the issue dead. The Conservative government went on to become the loudest champion of gay rights at the Commonwealth and at the United Nations. This did not happen in spite of the Catholic majority among Canada’s Christian denominations. If anything, it happened because of it.

Of the roughly 22 million Canadians who identify as Christians, about 12.7 million call themselves Roman Catholics. Recent polling suggests that Canadian Catholics are ambivalent about same-sex marriage, or at least hold views that don’t track anywhere near Rome’s party line. As for the Vatican’s stance on contraception, University of Lethbridge pollster Reg Bibby says nine out of 10 Canadian Catholics oppose it. More than half of the Catholic laity opposes Rome’s hardline stance on abortion, too.

If the Yes side wins on Friday, the great cause that Daniel O’Connell championed will not be betrayed. It will be vindicated. The Emancipation of 1826 will at last count within its embrace those who were “stamped by the Creator with no inferiority,” and yet were set apart even so by Ireland’s 1937 constitution as aliens and outcasts. Tá, comhionannas – Yes, equality – would stand not only as an overdue triumph in the cause of the emancipation of the Catholic Irish. It would stand as well as another small assurance, a tiny bit of hope, that the unjustly treated, everywhere, will one day win.

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