01 February 2014

When you're suing, you're losing

They came in at the weekend, when they knew nobody would be around. They entered the Student's Union building and headed straight for the shop. It did not take the two men long to unscrew the vending maching from the wall. They left without taking anything else: this was all they had come for. It is unlikely anyone would have noticed them: just a couple of middle aged men walking across campus. And even if they had been seen, nobody would have dared to stop them. Because these men were the President and Bursar of the University.

In 1979, it was against the law to sell condoms in Ireland. The only legal way was for students to make a donation to the Students' Union, and receive, by way of a thank you, a packet of condoms. It was a convenient fiction in which the Union and the Administration colluded. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

But the Union shop closed at 5 on a Friday, just when the weekend was getting into full swing. By the time students realised that they needed contraception, it was too late. The Union responded by installing a condom machine. But this was stretching the fiction of a 'donation' a little too far for the comfort of the Adminstration, who decided to take the law - and the machine - in their own hands.

Moral courage is rarely a requirement for management positions, especially in Ireland. For many it is a positive disadvantage. The University President and Bursar, no doubt, were acting on legal advice. I remember the shock of the news at the time. But, looking back, it's hard to think of the two distinguished gentlemen, striding across the campus with a stolen condom machine, without laughing out loud.

I was reminded of this when I read about the case of entertainer Rory O'Neill, who performs as drag queen Panti Bliss. Interviewed on RTE's Saturday Night Show, he commented that, although Ireland is in many ways a conservative country, being small it can change quickly: 'every single person in this audience has a cousin or a neighbour or the guy that you work with who is a flaming queen'. Only on the internet and in newspaper articles is it now acceptable to be 'really horrible and mean about gays'.

When pressed as to who these people might be, he mentioned a couple, including some connected to the Iona Institute, a tiny pressure group of conservative Catholics. He went on:
Feck Off! Get the hell out of my life.
It was a heartfelt comment, which got an enthusiastic clap from the audience.When the presenter raised the issue of homophobia, he went on to say that 'if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe'.

It was clearly an expression of honest opinion, and you would think - I am not a lawyer, I can't tell - defensible as such. But certain commentators, upset at being described as homophobic, got their lawyers on the case. Letters were sent; RTE folded, broadcasting a grovelling apology and paying a substantial sum to a number of individuals who felt that the word 'homophobic' was questioning their motives. There has not been a court case; the interesting question of what exactly constitutes 'homophobia' has not, so far, been explored with the aid of a jury.

Many people are angered by this. License payer money has been handed over to people who object to being described in terms many people would agree with. Rory O'Neill, understandably, is annoyed at having his words apologised for without having an opportunity to defend them.

Why reach for your lawyers because you don't like someone's opinion of you? It's hard to avoid the suspicion that what troubled the Ionaites was not what Rory said but that people clapped it. Because he's absolutely right - public opinion really has shifted, to the point where most Irish people are okay with gays and marriage equality. The younger you are, the more likely you are to agree.

That's not difficult to understand. The only argument against same sex marriage that ever really worked was that it had not been done before. Now it's been adopted in many countries. The world has not fallen apart. There's no other rational argument: is any straight person going to avoid marriage because the gays have ruined it? That's just silly. And, like Rory said, people relate instinctively to real people: they want people who love each other to get married. When common sense and common decency converge on a question, the argument is over.

For supporters of the Iona Institute (which is not an 'institute' - they don't do proper research, they just misrepresent that of other people) it must be very upsetting to be reminded of this. Having RTE pay them money to compensate for their sense of hurt is a bit like Mammy putting her arm around you and saying "don't you mind what those boys and girls are saying to you".

'Iona', I assume, is intended to call to mind the survival of Christianity,  in the Dark Ages, on the Celtic fringe of Europe. But Iona, now, is a tiny island, on the fringes of society, where very few people live. Some day - I hope not too far in the future - as we explain to our children that, yes, there was a time when two men, or two women, could not get married to each other, we will think about the posturing of the Iona group, and laugh out loud. I can't wait.