Metro Weekly

Ireland Chooses Equality

In a historic vote, Ireland has legalized same-sex marriage, putting the Catholic Church in an uneasy position

Ireland's flag -- Photo by Michal Osmenda via Wikipedia
Ireland’s flag — Photo by Michal Osmenda via Wikipedia

Last Friday, a staunchly Catholic, socially conservative nation made gay rights history when it became the first country in the world to enact same-sex marriage by public vote.

Ireland, where 84 percent of people are Roman Catholic, where divorce only became legal in 1995, where homosexuality itself was only decriminalized two years prior to divorce, will soon begin to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In a referendum, Irish voters were asked whether they supported amending the constitution to include the line, “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” Overwhelmingly, Irish voters said “Yes!”

In the days leading up to the vote, there was uncertainty as to whether same-sex marriage campaigners would succeed. The latest polls indicated that just over 50 percent of people supported the referendum, but that had plummeted from similar polls in the weeks prior to voting day. What’s more, there had been precedent for incorrect polling data relative to outcomes. In the 1995 divorce referendum, support for ending the ban enjoyed a forty-four point lead, according to The Guardian. It passed by just two percent. In a 2013 referendum on abolishing the Irish Senate, 62 percent of people were apparently in favor. The measure failed, with 52 percent voting against. Even across the Irish Sea, in Britain, every major poll suggested that in its recent elections the country was headed for a hung parliament with no clear winner — the Conservative party won with a slim majority.

Thankfully, not even a resurgent “No” campaign could defeat the tide of support for marriage equality that swept the Emerald Isle. When all was said and done, almost two-thirds of two million voters opted in favor of the referendum. In every constituency bar one — Roscommon–South Leitrim — a majority voted in favor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, support was most heavily concentrated in urban areas. On average, 70 percent chose marriage equality around the capital, Dublin. In more rural areas, such as Donegal, the number of voters supporting equality was only marginally higher than those against — by just one-tenth of a percent in Donegal South-West.

Overall, though, the message was clear. Ireland welcomes marriage equality — and just five years after it gave same-sex couples civil unions. What makes it all the more historic is the nature in which Ireland granted marriage to its gay and lesbian citizens. Before Friday, eighteen countries around the world had marriage equality, as well as some states in the U.S. and Mexico. All implemented the change through legislation or through edicts from judicial branches. Ireland put the question over same-sex marriage to the people — and the people said yes.

And not just ordinary people. Every major political party supported the measure. Sports stars, television personalities, musicians, authors, columnists — all threw their support behind the marriage referendum. Ireland’s youth turned up to vote in record numbers, while several papers carried reports of Irish citizens returning home from working abroad in Canada, Australia and other nations in order to support marriage equality. Two days before his electorate walked into voting booths, Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, pleaded with voters to give same-sex couples marriage rights. “There is nothing to fear for voting for love and equality,” he said.

For the Catholic Church, which once wielded incredible power in both politics and daily life in Ireland, the referendum was “an unmitigated disaster,” according to Father Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priest.

“It was clear from the beginning that the bishops’ decision in policy terms to campaign for a blunt No vote was alienating even the most conservative of Irish Catholics,” he said. The referendum also made clear “the gap between the church and a significant number of its people…. [The vote was] another significant body-blow to the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland… [and] a watershed in Irish history.”

It was a view echoed in Rome, where the Vatican’s official newspaper, Osservatore Romano, called the referendum “a defeat.”

“The margin between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ votes was too large not to be accepted as a defeat,” it said, adding that the result represented “a challenge for the whole Church” and exemplified “the distance, in some areas, between society and the Church.” The Catholic Church has faced falling attendance and reduced influence, particularly among Ireland’s youth — a direct result of the numerous child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in recent years.

“This marks the end of the narrative of the last 90 years,” Colm O’Gorman, head of Amnesty International in Ireland, told the Financial Times, “where Irish people were happy to have had their values created and passed down to them by people who claimed to know what was best for them.”

Religion, though, wasn’t the only factor in producing a “Yes” vote. For some, it was simply a matter of righting a very apparent wrong. As Irish Times writer Una Mullally wrote: “A lot of straight Irish people just wanted to be given the opportunity to show that they were not prejudiced, that they had no issue with people who were gay having their relationships recognized, that they wanted to live in a country where all citizens are valued equally.”

Of course, while the Republic of Ireland celebrates marriage equality, its cousin to the north is only getting lonelier. Northern Ireland is now the only country in the region to lack marriage equality, as England, Wales, Scotland and now Ireland all support it. However, any thought that socially conservative, Protestant Northern Ireland would follow their socially conservative, Catholic neighbors was quickly extinguished by politicians.

“We are defending the role of traditional marriage,” a DUP member of Northern Ireland’s parliament, Peter Weir, told the BBC. “This is an issue that has been debated on four occasions in the assembly and, on each occasion, it has been rejected by the majority of assembly members. We believe that the traditional marriage definition is correct one. We would be concerned about the impact on Churches. We don’t really run social policy in this country by way of referendum.”

Still, it hasn’t deterred supporters of marriage equality in Northern Ireland, where activists are planning a rally in support of the measure in Belfast next month. As Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan noted, the incredible victory for same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland has set an incredible precedent. That victory, though, is tempered by reality.

“Here it is business as normal,” he said. “It is discrimination as usual in Northern Ireland for same-sex couples.”

Sinn Féin politician Caitriona Ruane, however, remained optimistic about the future of marriage equality in Northern Ireland.

“I was part of the campaign in the south over the last number of weeks. There was a real conversation across family tables amongst the young and old,” she said. “For the first time my LGBT friends felt part of the conversation. An overwhelming population in the south voted for it — they voted yes for equality. If we do not legislate I have no doubt there will be a legal case on discrimination.”

Whether it will come to that, or whether Northern Ireland’s conservative legislators will have a change of heart, remains to be seen.

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