'Equality' in Ireland as voters back same-sex marriage in referendum

© Reuters / Cathal McNaughton
A same-sex marriage supporter reacts at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland May 23, 2015.

Irish voters have given their resounding support to same-sex marriage in a popular vote that vaults this tiny and once-conservative country to the forefront of the global gay-rights movement.

After a referendum on changing the Irish constitution to recognise gay marriage that has dominated discussion here for months and generated huge interest abroad, the official result announced before a cheering crowd in Dublin Castle on Saturday showed that nearly two-thirds of voters of voters backed the measure.

It is the most radical social change Irish voters have ever been asked to approve.

The result means that Ireland is the first country to introduce same-sex marriage through a popular vote rather than through legislation or the courts. It reinforces the diminished role of the Catholic Church in shaping Irish society. It also suggests that social changes under way over the past two decades are more far-reaching than Irish political and religious leaders imagined.

"For me, this is not so much a referendum, it is more a social revolution in Ireland," said Leo Varadkar, the health minister. "It makes us a beacon of equality and liberty for the rest of the world." Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, told RTE the result was "a reality check" for the church in its relations with Irish society.

© Reuters / Cathal McNaughton
Same-sex marriage supporters pose for a photograph at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland May 23, 2015.


Campaigners said the key to the outcome was a surge in voting by young people — including by young emigrants who returned in large numbers for Friday's referendum vote on an issue that has gripped the nation for months. But they stressed that while the youth vote was essential, the scale of the Yes vote affirmed that a large majority of Irish voters, regardless of their background, were comfortable with the idea of marriage equality.

The Yes campaign generated the most effective grassroots movement ever seen in an Irish referendum, with thousands of young people canvassing support door-to-door over many weeks. "We couldn't have won it without young people, but they did not win it by themselves," said Colm O'Gorman, head of Amnesty International in Ireland.

The result challenges the conventional wisdom about Ireland as a country divided between liberal Dublin and a conservative rural heartland, and between a disenchanted young population and more secure older people. Voters appear to have rejected those outdated views and sent a message of a more socially united Ireland ready to embrace equality and civil rights.

The columnist Fintan O'Toole described the result in the Irish Times as "a truly national moment." Aodhán O'Ríordáin, the Irish equality minister, told the Financial Times: "This is about a new republic. It was not just a yes, but a resounding yes, for a new, open, equal society."

The introduction of same-sex marriage, which will now require legislation in parliament, will end one of the last areas of discrimination against gay people in Ireland, which has usually been a laggard in introducing liberal social change. Homosexual acts were decriminalised only in 1993, and divorce was introduced two years later — after two referendums, and years after similar measures elsewhere in western Europe.

© Reuters / Cathal McNaughton
Children wave rainbow flags as they stand with their same-sex marriage supporting parents at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland May 23, 2015.

The No campaign had insisted that backing the change would "redefine" the traditional Irish Catholic idea of marriage and the family in a way that would be unacceptable to Irish people.

The Iona Institute, a family values think-tank that led the No campaign, conceded that proponents of same-sex marriage had won "a handsome victory". But it said it wanted the government to "address the concerns voters on the No side have about the implications [of the vote] for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience."

In the referendum, voters were asked to include a clause in the constitution that reads: "Marriage may be contracted according to law between two people without distinction as to their sex."

Turnout was about 60 per cent of the 3.2m people eligible to vote. That is unusually high for a referendum in Ireland, though it is lower than the turnout usual for general elections. Irish voters are frequently asked to vote in referendums to change the country's written constitution, which dates from 1937.

Comment: "This is about a new republic. It was not just a yes, but a resounding yes, for a new, open, equal society."

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Irish schoolchildren continue to be taught lies about their own history - the Irish Holocaust, or the 'Great Famine' (Irish potato famine), as it is still euphemistically termed.

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Irish police clamp down on water charge protesters, resulting from the severe austerity measures subsequently implemented.

Such emphasis on 'openness and equality' on gay marriage in Ireland - but what about these other issues?