‘…………by Steve Williams
Ireland did it! In a landslide victory the Republic of Ireland has become the first country in the world to legalize marriage equality by a public vote. Here’s what you need to know and why this may even be important for the marriage equality fight in other countries.
The vote, which occurred on Friday, May 22, saw a large voter turn-out and, most notably, many Irish people returning home from England and other areas to ensure they could have a say in the vote as Ireland has no postal or absentee voting system.
The result, which was announced by late Saturday, saw more than 62 percent of the voting public say “yes” to same-sex marriage, with just under 38 percent against it. While that was largely in step with the polls, the fact that the Yes campaign managed to retain the strength of its support surprised many as the margin was expected to narrow considerably once people actually got to the ballot.
Indeed, many commentators were worried that the vote could be much closer due to rural communities failing to really take in the Yes campaign messages, however in the end voting data suggests that support was strong even among rural communities, and certainly much stronger than had been expected.
Senior Religious Figures Say the Vote Was a Wake-Up Call
In the final few days before the vote, several conservative Catholic bishops took to their pulpits to urge a “no” vote on the marriage equality question, relying on tactics such as suggesting that children would be harmed and that mothers in particular be devalued as a result of same-sex couples being able to wed.
In the wake of such a massive defeat for the No campaign, religious progressives and secularists alike have warned that gone are the days when the Irish people would take morality lessons solely from the Church, and especially not when those same religious figures used scaremongering tactics about harming children and damaging society as a whole rather than simply relying on their religious teachings.
Fr Brendan Hoban, co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), is quoted as saying: “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.”
In particular, reflections on the No campaign have said its chief mistake was to try to use the age of the Yes movement against them: after campaigning began in earnest at the start of the year it quickly became apparent that the younger generations were overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality. The Church therefore set itself against that movement, but in so doing it may have made a blunder that will have long-lasting consequences. As we know, religious influence is in decline in many places, and particularly in Ireland where prosperity has led to a rise in secularism. The Church needs young people on its side if it is to survive as even a shadow of the former power it once was, but by being so uncompromising during its backing of the No campaign–which also received heavy support from American religious groups–there is the fear that it has alienated Ireland’s younger generations, something that can not be easily undone.
A Call for Action in Northern Ireland
Critically, the vote in the Republic has been seen as a chance to push the Northern Ireland government to act on this issue. Northern Ireland is now the only place in mainland UK that does not recognize same-sex marriage despite the fact that public polls show that there is significant support for marriage equality.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland lawmakers appear to be unmoved by the strength of support that was seen across the border. DUP MLA Peter Weir is quoted by the BBC as saying that, essentially, it doesn’t matter what public appetite wants, it’s lawmakers that have the final say:
“We are defending the role of traditional marriage,” he said.
“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.”
What’s interesting is the disconnect there between the public and Northern Ireland’s lawmakers, and that never makes for a good time for presiding governments. What seems certain now, more than ever, is that Northern Ireland’s ban on marriage equality cannot last for much longer and now it’s a question of whether Northern Ireland’s lawmakers will finally act, or whether the courts will need to be involved.
What is very encouraging though is that this vote has also emboldened same-sex marriage advocates in Australia, Germany (which has equivalent partnership rights but technically not marriage) and in Italy, where activists have vowed to demonstrate that the religious hold on this issue has slipped and that the public is ready for marriage equality.
So congratulations to the Republic of Ireland whose vote in favor of marriage equality was incredibly meaningful not just within its borders, but for same-sex marriage battles across Europe, too!