Expert Comment: A good day for democracy in IrelandTuesday 26 May 2015
On Thursday 21 May, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on whether to change the country’s constitution in order to allow gay marriage. The outcome was very clear: a resounding vote of almost 2 to 1 in favour of the change. While Ireland will not be the first country to recognise gay marriage, it is the first to do so through a public referendum rather than a parliamentary vote.
The decision reflects how far the country has changed in quite a short period of time in relation to social attitudes, transforming itself from a very conservative and restrictive place into one of far greater openness and tolerance. As the referendum result became clear, the current Irish Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, who is himself gay, described it as a “social revolution.”
It is also something of a triumph for democracy. We are used to thinking of democracy as simply meaning majority rule, and the Irish vote certainly showed a decisive majority of 62% in favour of the change. But proper democracy is about more than just counting votes. It is also about establishing a culture of discussion and of tolerance.
The Irish referendum did just that. First of all, there was a thorough debate on the rights and wrongs of the proposal for several weeks, which was carried out generally in a fair and respectful manner on both sides. This contributed to one of the highest ever turnouts in Irish referendums, just over 60%.
And the result was an affirmation of one of the most important principles of proper democracy – that the true test of a democracy is how it treats minorities. Normally, that means we look to governments to protect minorities. But the Irish referendum is an even greater example, with a minority group gaining equal rights and equal status not through an act of government but from the open and generous vote of the majority.