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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bravo Fintan

From yesterday's Irish Times...

McDowell blows last PD assets

Tue, Feb 27, 2007

If it is true that one legacy of the colonial past, Anglophobia, died at Croke Park last Saturday, it is rather ironic that another - sleeveenism - had reasserted its place in Irish politics just a few days earlier, writes Fintan O'Toole.

Sleeveenism is a combination of cunning and cowardice, the sly use of low tricks to avoid facing up to a potentially difficult situation. It is a skill with which our rulers have long been imbued, and the only surprise about its deployment in the Dáil on Wednesday and Thursday last is that it should have been done by Michael McDowell, a man who once prided himself on his contempt for the old ways of devious cowardice. Anyone who wants to understand how the PDs have become more Fianna Fáil than Fianna Fáil themselves should look at what happened to the Labour Party's Civil Unions Bill last week.

When Des O'Malley founded the PDs, there were four things that distinguished the party from Fianna Fáil. They were more accommodating on Northern Ireland, and more attached to neo-liberal economics. Those differences have been eroded by the Belfast Agreement and by 10 years in government. The other differences were a deep distaste for the culture of corruption around Charles Haughey and an enthusiasm for the so-called liberal agenda on personal and sexual freedom. Remarkably, in two weeks, Michael McDowell has blown both of these remaining assets. No one from the PDs bothered to mutter a single word in the Dáil debate on the Moriarty report.

Then, last week, Michael McDowell was faced with having to take a very mildly courageous stand on a social issue, that of civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. He dealt with it in a way that made Haughey's infamous "Irish solution to an Irish problem" on contraception look like an epic act of statesmanship.

It is important to understand the context for Labour's bill. It is generally accepted that gay and lesbian couples face serious discrimination in areas like taxation, family-formation, inheritance, pensions and welfare rights. (Co-habiting couples of the opposite sex do so too, but they at least have the option of marriage.) The issue has been looked at by a range of bodies, including the Law Reform Commission, the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the Working Group on Domestic Partnership established by Michael McDowell himself and chaired by his former party colleague Anne Colley. A clear consensus has emerged.

It recognises that the obvious solution - allowing same-sex marriage - would require a constitutional amendment, since both Irish and European courts have defined marriage as existing only between a man and a woman. Given that a referendum to change the definition of marriage might be lost, the consensus, supported by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, is that the way forward is civil unions which give those within them broadly the same rights as married couples. Crucially, the all-party committee and the Colley group, both of whom had access to expert legal advice, stressed that this solution would not raise constitutional problems.
The Colley group reported to Michael McDowell last November and it received a broad welcome. Labour introduced a bill giving effect to its recommendations on same-sex partnerships, and it came up for debate last week. The Fianna Fáil TD Barry Andrews, who was a member of the all-party committee, had the guts to welcome the bill and to say, truthfully, that Government inaction on the issue might reasonably be taken "to infer that this constituted a judgment on gay and lesbian couples and that the failure to legislate implies their relationships are in some way inferior to those of heterosexual couples". He also said the committee "took specific legal advice" on the constitutionality of the kind of civil partnerships that Labour was proposing and was assured that there was no problem.

Michael McDowell had the courage neither to accept or reject the Labour bill. He put down an amendment stating that "the terms of the Civil Unions Bill 2006 as presented appear to be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution" - a herring so red that you can't see it blush. And then he engaged in an act of supreme sleeveenism. He proposed, not that the bill be rejected, but that its reading be postponed for six months. Six months from now, of course, there will be a new Dáil and all motions left over from the old Dáil will lapse. The effect of the McDowell amendment is to consign the Civil Unions Bill to oblivion without anyone having to actually vote against it.

Fianna Fáil and PD TDs can go to the doorsteps, tell gay people that they support their right to equality and tell social conservatives that they sunk an attempt to recognise gay partnerships. Among those who voted for this contemptible manoeuvre were Mary Harney, Liz O'Donnell, Michael McDowell and Fiona O'Malley. Charlie Haughey would be proud of them.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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