Homophobia, and why I want to see the Iona Institute on RTÉ. All. The. Time.

I have one thing in common with the Iona Institute. I too keep forgetting that those creepy, sex-obsessed reactionaries only speak for about 2% of Ireland’s Catholics.

Every practising Catholic I know considers them to be embarrassing extremists and I have heard some Catholics close to me rage that “those fanatics must, surely be to God, have something on RTÉ to say that they’re on the television and the radio night and day”.

By now, you will probably have heard about Rory O’Neill‘s appearance on “The Saturday Night Show” and the subsequent storm which led to John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute getting an apology and an undisclosed chunk of taxpayers’ money from RTÉ. O’Neill, the alter ego of Panti, the drag queen, told Brendan O’Connor that homophobia is not accepted in a modern Ireland where gay people are visible and (by the vast majority of us) valued members of Irish society.

“It’s very hard to hold prejudices against people when you actually know those people,” he said. He went on to say that the only place “it’s okay to be horrible and really mean to gays is on the internet – in the comments – and, you know, people who make a living writing opinion pieces for the newspapers.”

All of which was fine until Brendan O’Connor did something really, really stupid. “Who are they?” he asked.

Now, how many times do we hear superior interviewers like, say, Joe Duffy, on live air, warn interviewees not to name names? Not so Shrek. That Rory O’Neill named names and left RTÉ open to (I still think entirely spurious) claims of defamation reflects on the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Despite RTÉ removing the clip from the RTÉ Player and Youtube, you can watch the interview here.

Owent on to make this wonderful and, I think, entirely reasonable point about what constitutes homophobia: “What it boils down to is 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 and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that.”

Sadly, that wasn’t enough to galvanise RTÉ or indeed its man Brendan O’Connor, the genius who had encouraged Rory to name names. One craven apology coming right up. (Philip O’Connor has written about that, far better than I ever could, here.)

It is, though, important to remember that there are a lot of very decent people working in RTÉ and some of them are sick to the stomach at this development. Here, for no reason other than my own need to be cheered up, is something really beautiful from RTÉ.

With a referendum on marriage equality very likely within the next two years, we can expect to hear a lot more from the Iona Institute and Company Limited. We can look forward to a lot of shrieking about “The Children”, what Alan Flanagan calls “The Helen Lovejoy Syndrome“.

But here’s the thing: I am no fan of John Waters or the Iona Institute. I have written about Breda O’Brien before and one of Iona’s most Smithers-like apologists had a go at me in the last few days for mocking Poor John Waters. An attack which made me, as Father Jessup might say, “sooooooooooooooo sad”.


But I saw some friends from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community propose in the immediate aftermath of RTÉ’s miserable apology and settlement that, henceforth, no LGBT people should agree to appear on panel discussions with Iona Institute personnel.

Folks, have you lost your minds?

Personally, I hope Iona’s litigiousness doesn’t have the unintended consequence of lessening their media ubiquity. It would, of course, be a terrible mistake to allow the bigots to go unchallenged but it would also be very unfortunate if broadcasters decided they had no choice, without the balancing voices of LGBT commentators, but to exclude the Iona Institute from discussion.

The Iona Institute is an accidental force for, and please hear me out, compassion and inclusivity. Every time members of that wretched outfit go on the air looking like homophobes and bullies is surely a victory for those of us who start from a principle of equality. “Equality must take second place to the common good” says Breda O’Brien of the Iona Institute. John Waters calls marriage equality “a kind of satire on marriage which is being conducted by the gay lobby”. God love them.

To the Iona Institute and their fellow travellers, they represent the reasonable argument against equality. They only look like religious fundamentalist maniacs because there is no reasonable argument against equality and they lack the self-awareness to realise it.

I want Iona and their fellow travellers on the air all the time. (I don’t, really. I can’t afford to throw any more televisions or radios out the window, but bear with me.) I want them arguing against equality and looking wild-eyed and hysterical because those watching will see the opponents of the I-Onans as decent and rational people and the type of person you’d want for a family member or a neighbour or a friend.

I think the Iona Institute is pumping out a message of intolerance and, yes, hatred, one which has nothing Christian about it. But then, as my Granny used to say, them that’s closest to the altar is often furthest from God. Let them spew. The more people see and hear of them, the more people will know them for what they are.

By the way, if you’re angry about RTÉ’s spineless behaviour (and if you have an interest in freedom of speech you should be) please do something about it. Write to complaints@rte.ie (Before you write, I recommend you take a look at Brian Barrington’s powerful letter here.)

Before I go, here’s something else from RTÉ (and BBC). Mrs Brown on marriage equality. Brendan O’Carroll gets a free pass from me for this.

“Could you show me in any Bible, anywhere, where Jesus Christ refused to sanctify love?”

Donal O’Keeffe

Post Script: On Wednesday the 29th of January, Audrey Carville asked her guests on The Late Debate, Breda O’Brien and Colm O’Gorman, to comment on RTÉ’s apology and settlement to Ms O’Brien, John Waters and the Iona Institute. The resulting discussion made for riveting radio. Listen here.