Bill will recognise and protect diverse family units

Cross-party support for Bill although some concern at what is seen as an attempt to rush it through too quickly

The referendum on same sex marriage is already sliding into a wider debate on a range of issues including adoption, surrogacy, stem-cell research and the status of the traditional family.

The Government had hoped to have the Children and Family Relationships Bill passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas well before the debate on the same-sex marriage referendum began but this was probably never a realistic prospect.

The history of referendums in Ireland, and elsewhere as well, is that when it comes to the crunch the outcome is often influenced by a range of issues that have nothing to do with the precise wording that goes before the people.

Studies have found that in the series of referendums on EU membership a significant number of people were influenced in their decision by the fear of conscription into a European army even though there was never the remotest possibility that such a development was involved.


Over the past week it has become clear that the referendum on marriage equality will be about much more than same-sex marriage but about issues that go to the heart of where Ireland as a society is going.

The details of the Children and Family Relationships Bill were announced yesterday by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald. While most of them had been in the public domain for a year or more the public debate on some of the core issues is only just beginning.

Former minister for justice Alan Shatter, who did a monumental amount of work in drafting the Bill, raised concerns last week that the delay in getting the final version published could put the marriage referendum in jeopardy.

The current Minister argues that the complexity of the Bill meant it was not possible to get it published before now. In any case it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the debate on the Bill would inevitably have fed into the marriage debate one way or another.

While there is cross-party support for the Bill, Opposition parties have expressed concern at what they see is an attempt to rush it through the Dáil too quickly.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on justice Niall Collins has expressed serious reservations about the Government’s approach and stressed that the appropriate amount of time should be provided to debate the complex and significant piece of legislation.

In response, Government sources have said that while they would like to get legislation passed as quickly as possible there is no question of debate on the issue being truncated and TDs and senators will be given as much time as is required to have a full debate.

In all likelihood the Bill will be passed by the Oireachtas a month or more before the referendum but the issues at its core will feed into the referendum debate.

One puzzling development in recent days was the decision to have the outline of the surrogacy Bill discussed by the Cabinet yesterday. Initially this issue was included in the broader Children and Family Relationships Bill but was taken out last autumn and sent to the Department of Health both because of the further complex issues involved and the desire not to create too much confusion.

Although the Bill, which will provide for detailed rules on surrogacy, will not be debated by the Dáil until well after the referendum the very fact of it going to Cabinet pitched the issue into the referendum debate.

Groups who will be campaigning against same-sex marriage have pointed out that surrogacy is banned completely in a number of countries, including France and Germany, and they have questioned the decision to proceed with a legal framework for it in Ireland.

The early stages of the debate on surrogacy illustrated once more that the referendum is going to be about much more than marriage but it begs the question as to why the issue of surrogacy was pitched into the mix at this juncture.

It served as a distraction from the issue of the day which was the detail of the Children and Family Relationships Bill outlined by Frances Fitzgerald.

The core of the Bill is to provide legal support and protection for children in their relationships with those parenting them. This may include married or unmarried parents, a parent’s partner, grandparents or relatives. The Minister said the Bill would enable grandparents and other relatives to have easier access to children in the context of relationship breakdown, and to apply for custody if there is no parent willing or able to take responsibility for caring for the child.

She said it would provide for parentage, guardianship, custody and access across situations that are not addressed adequately in current law. These situations could involve children living with their married parents, unmarried parents, a parent and the parent’s partner or with a grandparent or other relative who is parenting the child.

It includes provisions for children being parented by same-sex couples and covers children who have been born through donor-assisted human reproduction.

Fitzgerald said the Bill would provide a legal bedrock upon which the diversity of families would be valued, recognised and protected in today’s Ireland.

It will be no surprise if divergent views in Irish society on some of these issues feed into the debate on the marriage referendum and influence its outcome. Stephen Collins is Political Editor