13 May 2015

Ireland prepares for historic vote on gay marriage

Voters in the Republic of Ireland will take part in a historic vote next week allowing the public to decide if same sex marriage can be allowed in a traditionally Catholic country, Neil Markey writes.

The referendum has seen a bitter battle between religious conservative organisations and a younger generation, who worry about the nation’s perception globally if it fails to pass.

If the referendum is passed married same-sex couples will be recognised as a family and entitled to the same Constitutional protection as opposite sex couples.

The vote comes almost twenty two years after homosexuality was decriminalised in the country and more than four years after a Civil Partnership Bill came into effect.

Debates have taken place across Ireland for the past year and the vote has left the Irish State firmly at odds with the Catholic church and groups espousing traditional values.

Youth vote

Polls have placed public support around 75 per cent in favour of full marriage equality, however, there is worry among Yes campaigners that the turnout will be significantly lower come voting day – as polls have historically overstated support in past referenda.

Demographic differences have come to the fore; more than 80 per cent of younger voters have expressed support, with numbers dropping significantly for over 65s.

Recent figures suggested that up to 120,000 young people were not registered to vote in the referendum. Internet campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and celebrity encouragement have led to police stations across the country being reportedly swamped with voter registration forms before and right up to the deadline.

This vote will allow same-sex couples to receive full legal protections, and will not force any church to recognise same-sex marriage.
Taoiseach, Enda Kenny

All major political parties, including Labour and Sinn Féin – as well as smaller political alliances in the Irish parliament, are calling for a Yes vote.

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, from a traditionally conservative Fine Gael party, has addressed the religious community – stating the referendum will not impact on religious freedoms.

“This vote will allow same-sex couples to receive full legal protections, and will not force any church to recognise same-sex marriage. Importantly, marriage equality will not in any way affect the institution of marriage.”

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Despite a continued decline of the Catholic Church’s authority in Ireland, it has come out strongly against the referendum.

Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said in a recent letter that the Church emphasises that gay people should be treated with respect and sensitivity but that the Church teaches there are “no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Religious reaction

Last month, a spokesperson for Ireland’s Catholic bishops said the Church may no longer perform the civil aspects of weddings if the referendum is passed, meaning couples married in a Catholic ceremony would have to go elsewhere to have their union legally recognised by the State.

Archbishop Martin echoed this sentiment last week, saying: “We would have to look at legislation to see is it possible for us to continue to stand over our ministers being involved in civil ceremonies.”

Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Joan Burton responded to the Archbishop’s comments, saying whatever the Catholic Church wishes to do in relation to marriage ceremonies, is a matter for the Church.

Ali Selim, of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, was among a group of religious voices who complained that the referendum would discriminate against people opposed to marriage equality for religious reasons, claiming that no Muslim would vote Yes.

While the petition they sent to the Justice Minister was described as sharing the views of Christians, Muslims and Quakers, the Dublin Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) wrote to The Irish Times newspaper in support of a Yes vote.

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Battle stations

The run up to the referendum has seen a small number of groups join The Catholic Church in opposition – “Mothers & Fathers Matter” and “First Families First” feature well known conservative commentators and have taken a share of Iona’s considerable media exposure, while smaller groups like Mandate For Marriage are relatively unheard of apart from regional radio interviews and internet mockery for their biblical stances on multiple issues.

Mothers & Fathers Matter claim that a No vote will maintain a definition of marriage that puts children and their right to a mother and father at the centre of the Irish constitution.

The Yes campaign is comprised of organisations such as the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, Marriage Equality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, as well as children’s charities and medical professionals.

Legal experts in the Lawyers for Yes group released a sixteen page document to inform public debate on the legal implications of the referendum and in response to what they call inaccurate and confusing statements made during the campaign.

International children’s charity UNICEF has also responded to what it calls unfair use of quotes and misinterpretations of research by the No campaign, saying that use of their 2007 report on child wellbeing to back up the assertion from Mothers & Fathers Matter that children need a father and a mother was “not reasonable”.

The main researcher for the report, Jonathan Bradshaw, said that his work does not say anything about same-sex families and it is unfair to use quotes from it to argue against marriage equality.

As voting day draws closer, debates and campaigns have heated up.

Many in Ireland’s LGBT community have taken to social media to express dismay at some of the arguments being made against equality and criticised hurtful comments and rhetoric used in campaigns.

The No side has claimed that they are being demonised and that many are afraid to express their opinion out of fear of being branded as homophobic. Both sides have reported that their campaign signs have been vandalised, defaced or removed, while Yes campaigners say they have received hate mail and threats of violence.

Written by Neil Markey.