This is an article I wrote for this morning's Examiner. The Green's chief spokesperson took issue with it and made a fair point (which I partly agree with) that the article was too cyncial and lacked historical perspective (I didn't sufficiently recognise the Gulliver-like leap that FF agreement and Cabinet commitment to this legislation means).
Anyway here it is...
To understand how big the Green Party’s change of tack on same sex marriage was this week, we have to go back to what Marx said about principles.
“Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”
Ok, we are being very cynical here. It was the slightly less heavyweight Marx, Groucho, who made the above comment.
But it was clear from the debate in the Dáil about same sex partnership this week that pragmatism won out over principle for the Green Party.
It is understandable. In Government, they have six TDs compared to 78 for Fianna Fail. And all of the usual drawbacks of being a minor coalition partner apply. You can only punch so much above your weight. You are not going to win every battle. You have to choose your moment. Compromise is the name of the game. Sometimes you have to swallow hard.
And the Greens have taken a couple of big hits – as they and we always knew they would – since they entered coalition with Fianna Fail and the PDs earlier this year. They had to bow to the vast strength of FF when it came to road-building; to the M3; to the Rossport terminal; and to incineration (though John Gormley is trying to fight a fierce rearguard battle that may or may not prevent Poolbeg from being built).
The light wouldn’t need to be glowing too brightly in the attic to realise that a very liberal party like the Greens would find it difficult to argue for legislation (and constitutional change) that would put same sex unions on a par with marriage. The broad brush of opinion within FF would consider that a step (and think of a step taken by Gulliver) too far. It was never going to happen.
The Greens managed to get a commitment into the Programme for Government on same sex unions. But that was for civil partnership. And that doesn’t stack up to marriage. It’s more to do with recognising succession rights, social welfare rights, tax arrangement and arrangements when such unions come to an end. This more minimalist approach fell short of the full equality sought by the partner.
Realpolitik dictated that this was going to be the case, that a compromise would e cobbled together.
Sure, they would take a hit. But that’s the nature of being a coalition partner.
But the optics of what happened this week was that the Greens panicked and walked straight into a neat ambush prepared by the Labour Party.
The party’s constitution spokesperson Brendan Howlin this week used his party’s private members time to table a Civil Union Bill, which ostensibly gave gay couples the right to solemnise the relationship, to put them on a distinct but equal footing with heterosexual marriage.
The huge political difficulty for the Greens was that Howlin was merely retabling a motion which he first introduced in the Dáil last February.
And then, the Greens were unstinting in their praise and admiration for Deputy Howlin’s Bill. Its justice spokesperson Ciarán Cuffe compared it to Rosa Louise Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man 50 years ago.
At the time, he said: “To relegate same-sex couples to some marriage-like institution is to deny them their human rights, dignity and rights as citizens of the State. We would like to introduce legislation that would go further and permit the removal of all gender specific terms from current legislation and regulations governing the granting of marriages.
“This would allow same sex couples to enjoy the equivalent rights and responsibilities of marriage afforded to heterosexual couples, should they so chose.”
And there was more: He said the Constitution was stuck in the sleepy backwaters of the 1940s, and does not recognise families other than those based on marriage.
Tactically, it was a smart move for Labour to re-table the motion as it was sure to embarrass the Greens. To employ a Healy-Raeism there wasn’t a chance in the wide earthly worlds that FF were going to buy into it.
If the answers were gay marriage and a constitutional referendum, the question had to be: “What would FF not go anywhere near in a month of Sundays.”
And politically, the optics were bad for the Greens this week. Instead of taking the flak full in the face (everybody expects that they would have to do that over the issue) we got promise of a new Civil Partnership Bill that seemed to have been hastily cobbled together.
Green Party leader John Gormley and Justice Minister Brian Lenihan appeared with little warning in the political correspondents’ room in Leinster House to announce they would be legislating for civil partnership.
But two words came to mind about their counter-motion. The first was ‘back’; the second was ‘envelope’. There were no written proposals. There was a couple of nebulous references to adopting recommendations of groups like Colley, an Oireachtas committee and the Law Reform Commission. And there was a promise that the heads, or scheme, of the Bill would be published next March.
It all had a rushed feel to it. And because of that, it made the contrast between the relatively feeble measures it contained and the brave words of Ciaran Cuffe last February all the more glaring.
The Green Party accepted Lenihan’s argument that the Labour Bill would be open to constitutional challenge. But in accepted there would be no legislation for same sex marriage and no prospect of a constitutional referendum.
Ciaran Cuffe gamely went on Morning Ireland and – in his scrupulously honest way – conceded that what was on offer was less than he desired.
“There is a difference between proposing while in opposition and enacting while in Government,” he said.
But still, Gormley’s comments that it was a historic decision seem a little hollow. The Greens seemed to be reacting rather than leading the charge – and they will need to do far more of the latter if they are to survive their coalition with the wiliest and slickest operators in Irish politics.