A striking feature of world politics since the 1960s is the emergence of transnational advocacy groups that bring together actors with disparate interests but shared beliefs to champion particular causes. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) social movements have been among the most prolific of these groups and they have achieved significant success of late, as evidenced by the laws passed on same-sex marriage in France, Denmark and New Zealand among other countries. Ireland is planning a referendum on this issue next year and debate there has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks.

One trigger for this debate was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to boycott the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade after its organisers refused, once again, to allow LGBT groups to march. The mayor’s decision was hard to ignore in Ireland, as senior members of the government typically travel to Boston, New York and Washington DC for St. Patrick’s Day to march in parades and meet with the country’s political elite. After much soul searching, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will march in the New York parade, but his Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton will not. Heineken, a somewhat unlikely sponsor for the event, has also decided to pull its funding.

A second trigger for recent controversy was an interview given in January by Panti Bliss, a well-known drag queen and gay rights activist otherwise known as Rory O’Neill, on the state broadcaster, RTE. In this interview, Panti Bliss accused a number of individuals – including some associated with the Iona Institute – of being homophobic. Iona is an advocacy group that is dedicated to preserving the place of marriage and religion in society. This group has campaigned against same-sex marriage in the past but some of its members took exception to Panti Bliss’s charge of homophobia and threatened legal action. RTE rapidly issued an apology and reached a €85,000 settlement with the Iona Institute and others named in the interview.

Panti Bliss’s reaction was altogether more impressive. The performer took to the stage of the Abbey Theatre last month to deliver an impromptu speech on the culture of homophobia in Ireland, a video of which attracted worldwide attention. That this speech took place in the Abbey was particularly poignant; the theatre played a major part in forging Ireland’s sense of national identity and it has a reputation for defending free speech since William Butler Yeats took to the stage in 1907 to defend The Playboy of the Western World against morally outraged rioters. Panti Bliss faced an easier crowd but her speech was no less memorable for its eloquence and for its honesty about homophobic hatred and self-censorship in a country where social conservatism has been slow to shift.

What is fascinating about this debate from a political science perspective is to see two advocacy groups battling it out not only over opposing beliefs but also over the more fundamental question of what their beliefs truly are. Students of advocacy coalitions generally assume that activists self-identify with particular beliefs, be it environmentalism, social justice or human rights. To impose beliefs on political actors is fraught with difficulties, not least because, as Paul Sabatier, Susan Hunter and Susan McLaughlin observe, we tend to demonise the views of those with whom we do not agree. Seen in these terms, Iona member Breda O’Brien is within her rights to challenge accusations that she holds beliefs that she says she abhors, whatever our own beliefs may be about her advocacy efforts.

Two points must be borne in mind here, however. Firstly, actors in the political process are not always best placed to understand how their beliefs are formed and to where they might lead. Margaret Thatcher, for example, denied that her economic policy was influenced by Monetarist ideas in spite of fairly convincing evidence to the contrary. Secondly, policy actors are generally not motivated by a single belief but by a complex conceptual web that links some ideas to others and which can, and frequently does, spin off into self-contradiction. The public is willing to tolerate a degree of cognitive dissonance from politicians; Thatcher, for example, was not unduly punished by the electorate for allowing government expenditure to rise in real terms in spite of her promises of fiscal rectitude. Fundamental contradictions can prove fatal, however, as the Iron Lady learned when the ill conceived poll tax destroyed her reputation for sound economic management and her premiership in the process.

As the debate on same-sex marriage in Ireland intensifies, those who are actively campaigning against the status quo should not be tarred with beliefs that they do not hold. They should, however, be held to account for why they believe that some rights should be extended to LGBT people while denying them others and how such discrimination can be justified in the law. Over the last few weeks, such campaigners have singularly failed to sustain such contradictions, leaving the stage to Panti Bliss, Bill de Blasio and friends.

Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. The views expressed in this article are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Birkbeck College.