Is Ireland about to become the pinkwashing capital of the world?

Ireland's political parties are projecting themselves as proud and tireless equality advocates. It's up to voters to reject this.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin
13 January 2016
 Demotix/Robin English.

A 'Vote Yes' marriage equality campaigner in Dublin earlier this year. Credit: Demotix/Robin English.

Less than a year ago, Ireland was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

This spring, Irish voters will return to the polls to vote in a General Election and the current government partners — centrist Fine Gael and putatively centre-left Labour — will need to defend the last five years of deep austerity policies. The timing of this election suggests that pinkwashing will be one of the country’s hottest trends for 2016.

Simply defined, pinkwashing is the practice of projecting a state or organisation as gay-friendly in order to soften or downplay its more negative characteristics. The term is most commonly used in relation to Israel where, critics argue, pro-LGBT messaging is part of a "deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life."

In Ireland, the government coalition that has established Ireland as the golden child of Europe’s austerity states — gladly imposing vicious cuts across society and lapping up the approbation of the troika — will now attempt to rinse all of that away with the success of a single political campaign, in which they demonstrate support for a single, narrow, neoliberal form of equality.

This is textbook pinkwashing. 

The process has already begun. The recently-launched campaign invites young emigrants to come #hometowork, appropriating the #hometovote movement, which saw thousands of young people travel home to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum. The posters fail to explain exactly what work these returning emigrants (numbering nearly half a million since the 2008 crash, 85% of them under 35) are expected to do, in the context of extreme generational inequality and a continuing youth unemployment rate of 19.7%.

Similarly, a government minister described the opportunity to reform Direct Provision, Ireland’s controversial accommodation system for asylum seekers, as another "Yes Equality moment” (referencing the most popular slogan of the referendum campaign). Whatever warm glow he was attempting to transmit will hardly reach those asylum seekers who have spent as much as seven years in Direct Provision centres where, as they await court judgments on their cases, they receive an independent allowance of €19.10 per week, have no entitlement to work, live with little to no privacy, and in extremely restrictive conditions.

The other major political event of the year, the celebration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, will also be pink-tinged. In the course of the referendum campaign, Yes activists repeatedly invoked the promise contained in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic that the state would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”, pursuing “the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

No reference, of course, to the reality of a virulently Catholic rebellion (launched at Easter to represent the resurrection of the Irish people) that ultimately gave rise to a violently Catholic state. Or to the fact that when a high-profile campaign sought clemency for Roger Casement, convicted of treason and sentenced to death for his part in the Rising, British authorities had only to leak diaries revealing his homosexuality to ensure that Irish support for him crumbled.

The promise of equality contained in the Proclamation was not realized in 1916, and has not been realized in 2016. While the conclusive ‘Yes’ vote was an impressive achievement and shouldn’t be underplayed, it does not temper the inequality faced by Irish women, by members of the Travelling community, by immigrants and asylum seekers, by young people, by the poor. And, whatever they claim in the course of the General Election campaign, the country’s mainstream political parties have no intention of seriously addressing the systemic causes of inequality in Ireland.

None of this is hugely surprising; we expect craven behaviour from politicians. More disappointing is the complicity of those who ran the referendum campaign in the hagiography. While the referendum campaign had many diverse grassroots elements, the central campaign organisation operated under the name ‘Yes Equality’ and united the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the Irish Centre for Civil Liberties and Marriage Equality (and earlier campaign organisation) under a single umbrella. The strategic approach of the organisation and its leaders has, justifiably, been celebrated as a major factor in the success of the referendum, which was carried with 62% support.   

However, in a new book, Ireland Says Yes, the co-chairs of Yes Equality offer an astonishingly conservative and homonormative narrative of the campaign for marriage equality in Ireland. They attribute the victory not to decades of resistance and grassroots activism, but to “the deep generosity” of middle Ireland. The contributions of queer activists, drag artists, working class, Traveller and immigrant communities are almost entirely erased. The authors insistently describe the campaign as one for the rights of Ireland’s “gay and lesbian” citizens, excluding all other queer identities. 

“We are the family values campaign,” one of the three is quoted as saying, and every decision they describe reflects that stance. The campaign couldn’t be too flamboyant (and, the subtext goes, flamboyant queer activists had to be delicately silenced); it had to focus on the ordinariness of gay families; its primary challenge was to assuage the concerns of straight men over 45. Activists couldn’t get angry, regardless of the levels of homophobia they faced, lest the campaign be perceived as hectoring or harassing voters. 

This is a story of ends justifying means, and every conservative and reactionary decision is uncritically justified by the fact that the referendum was carried, regardless of who was erased or hurt. This too is pinkwashing, since the attainment of increased rights for some queer people is used to justify and conceal other inequalities and acts of microaggression. Rather than expanding the progressive activist space in Ireland, the authors contract it, with an approach that is so tightly fitted to a specific goal that it excludes the goals of other rights-seeking groups and individuals.

For example, the portrayal of Ireland as modern and progressive in its support for LGBT people ignores the fact that Irish women are still denied abortion rights in virtually all circumstances. And many who supported the “family values” ethos of the campaign for marriage equality will apply the same thinking to the abortion debate, and oppose any liberalisation of reproductive laws.   

Even as we celebrate the passage of the referendum in Ireland, it’s time for a critical appraisal of the campaign and its aftermath, of homonormativity and pinkwashing, and of the experience of bi, trans, gender non-binary and other queer people, of immigrants, the working class, people in polyamorous relationships, the flamboyant, the non-normative, and all those who don’t fit into the narrow and conservative identity spaces of gay and lesbian Ireland.

In one of the book’s most glaringly obsequious and dishonest passages, the authors claim “the coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour, like all of Ireland’s political parties, had a record of supporting equality for gay and lesbian people.”

This claim is laughable. To take the most obvious contradictory example, Ireland was the last country in Western Europe to decriminalise homosexuality, only doing so in 1993 under significant pressure from the European Court of Human Rights. However, it reflects the vision of themselves that Ireland’s political parties have chosen to adopt and project, as proud and tireless equality advocates. It’s up to voters to reject this fallacy in the coming months.

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