Today Ireland votes in a referendum that’s the world’s first, on same sex marriage. It’s a shockingly quick liberalisation for a country that only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, but the last 20 years has seen scandal after scandal in the Catholic Church, which has fallen from its once unassailable position of moral authority to an institution too damaged to campaign prominently against equal marriage.
The referendum is being held because Ireland’s constitution charges the state with protecting the institution of marriage. Opinion is divided on whether the referendum is legally required to permit equal marriage as the constitution doesn’t define marriage as being between a man and a woman, but merely that it is defended as an institution. In the end the government erred on the side of caution and called a referendum to ensure that a move to equal marriage wouldn’t be struck down by the courts.
The Catholic Church still opposes the change and is preaching its message in churches across the country, but its conservative Catholic civil society groups that have led the opposition in practice. The argument against centres around children, with the No campaign arguing that children need a mother and a father. However, same sex couples in civil partnerships (brought in in 2010/2011) already have the right to adopt and raise children so the Yes campaign has tried – unsuccessfully – to shut this down as an argument. As many have pointed out, the No campaign’s stance on marriage being for reproduction and its insistence on the ideal family is potentially alienating for people who aren’t LGBT but who nevertheless don’t fit into the ideal.
Currently the Yes side is polling very strongly, with the No campaign only making a slight inroads over the last month. But it’s turnout that is likely to be key. It’s widely accepted that No voters are more motivated to come out and vote, whereas the mass of Yes voters may feel that their side is assured a victory and therefore it’s not quite as important to vote (and many of them may not have a lot personally riding on the result). There are also worries that there may be a “shy Tory” effect after the British elections – if people were too reticent to admit to voting Conservative in Britain, then there may be many in Ireland that have misgivings about voting Yes, but are too embarrassed to admit that they plan to vote No.
Whichever way the vote goes, the referendum is a milestone event in the birth of liberal Ireland, but marriage equality would not only be a powerful statement of the strength of modern Ireland – more importantly it will bring greater equality to the LGBT community and, after a long period of persecution, allow them to build loving families in Irish society.