Expert Comment: Yes Equality: Ireland’s referendum on Marriage EqualityTuesday 26 May 2015
Dr Sonja Tiernan, Senior Lecturer in History and Politics - and who is currently writing the official history of the Irish Marriage Equality campaign - reflects on the momentous result of the country's Marriage Equality referendum.
On Friday 22 May, Irish people went to the polls in a referendum to decide on including a new subsection into Article 41 of the Constitution. The article simply stated ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’ There was a record high turnout, seeing over 60% of eligible voters casting their vote. This was helped in part by a large number of Irish emigrants who returned home specifically to cast their vote. It is estimated that thousands came home to vote, initially led by a social media campaign called #gettheboat2vote which targeted Irish emigrants living in Britain. However, the evening before the polls opened thousands of emigrants began flooding into Dublin airport coming from as far as Australia, Canada, America and Africa. This was clearly an issue which people held very strong personal opinions about. Social media was alight with emotional stories trending through twitter with the hashtag #hometovote.
The Irish people voted ‘Yes’ by a large majority making civil marriage for same-sex couples legal in Ireland. There was an overall majority with 62% of the electorate in favour of the amendment. In fact only one constituency, Roscommon, out of Ireland’s 43 parliamentary constituencies, returned a No majority. This is a momentous result for Ireland. This is the first time that any country has introduced Marriage Equality by public vote. Ireland is being held up as a beacon for establishing equality legislation across the globe. Closer to home, it is hoped that Northern Ireland, who have not legislated to provide same-sex couples access to civil marriage, will be inspired to move towards equality. The referendum result has generated huge celebrations across the country.
A campaign that was initially identified as an LGBT issue quickly turned into a question of equality and was supported by people of all sexualities. The three main organisations, Gay & Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN): Marriage Equality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) joined forces to form Yes Equality. Describing themselves as ‘an independent nationwide civic society campaign,’ Yes Equality organised thousands of volunteers across the Republic of Ireland in what became a mass movement campaigning for equality. Pop up shops opened around the country selling Yes Equality badges and posters to finance the campaign. Volunteers took to the streets in their thousands canvassing houses and public areas. People toured the country in a ‘Yes’ campaign bus visiting rural towns and urban spaces. This became an impressive social movement and it signified positive change in Ireland.
The significance of this change has been recognised by the Catholic Church, who once held tight control over how Irish people voted, often dictating from the pulpit. During the run up to this referendum some Catholic priests openly supported a yes vote and while other priests, such as Fr John Britto of Donegal, attempted to profess the No agenda during a Sunday sermon, parishioners reacted by walking out of church. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, announced that the result of the referendum shows that the Catholic Church in Ireland ‘needs to take a reality check.’
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has praised Ireland noting that ‘this is a truly historic moment: Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve marriage equality in a nationwide referendum,’ adding that ‘the result sends an important message to the world: All people are entitled to enjoy their human rights no matter who they are or whom they love.’ The Irish Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald is committed to ensuring that this legislation will be enacted in Ireland as soon as possible so that couples will be able to marry whom they love as early as August of this year.