Today the Irish people will vote in a referendum which, if successful, will send a much-needed shockwave through bigotry, hatred and homophobia across the world, particularly the Vatican.
Since 2011, the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010 has given Irish same-sex couples rights and responsibilities similar, but not equal to, those of civil marriage. This legislation followed a long line of legal and constitutional reviews in conservative Ireland, looking into various social issues, including cohabitation and same-sex relationships.
Ireland is a particularly interesting case because it’s a staunchly Catholic nation with a historically strong devotion to the Catholic Church and a Constitution that enshrines the family as the centre of society. Ireland is a classic example of the danger of entrenching the social values of the time in a nation’s constitution. What may seem unobjectionable at one point in time can become entirely unreasonable before long and prevent social progress. A successful referendum in Ireland would represent a historical shift in a traditionally socially conservative nation.
The Irish Constitution came into force in 1937. It strongly reflects the thinking of the time and the influence of the Catholic Church. For example, Article 41 ‘recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law’ and says that the ‘State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State’. But wait, there is more in Article 41:
In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.
Consequently, due to a range of quite old-fashioned concepts embedded in the Irish Constitution, which are inherently antagonistic to the idea of marriage equality, the Irish Parliament cannot pass a law in favour of same-sex marriage. The only way for Ireland to legalise marriage equality is by a referendum, amending the Irish Constitution.
The new Irish coalition government elected in March 2011 held a special Constitutional Convention from 2012 to 2014 to discuss proposed amendments to the Irish Constitution, including plans to introduce same-sex marriage. On 10 July 2012, the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament, referred to the Convention the issue of whether to make provision in the Constitution for same-sex marriage. On 14 April 2013, the Convention approved provisions allowing for marriage equality, to be discussed by the Oireachtas Éireann, the Irish legislature, and put to a public referendum.
Today Ireland will hold that referendum asking the Irish people whether marriage equality should become legal. If the referendum is successful, the Irish Constitution will be amended to include the following words:
‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’
If the referendum in Ireland is successful, it will make it the first nation in the world to introduce marriage equality through a popular national vote. A victory for the ‘Yes’ vote would have a significant impact not just on Ireland, but on the international fight for LGBTI equality.
The significance of this referendum is highlighted by the fact that it appears to be attracting the attention of America’s right-wing conservative Christians. One of the ‘No’ side’s strongest supporters has been the notorious and lavishly funded American anti-gay hate group, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). It has even been suggested that they have channeled funds to assist the ‘No’ vote. This would not be a surprising turn of events, considering the role NOM played in opposing the campaign for marriage equality in France. Being an organisation of devoted, conservative Catholics, the NOM is not troubled by notions of sovereignty or free will.
Admittedly, Irish Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin’s statement to the Irish people on the topics of marriage equality and the upcoming Irish referendum reminded me of this classic Rowan Atkinson sketch:
Despite the strong opposition from the usual circles, the Irish referendum is expected to be successful with the Government, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and all other major parties supporting a ‘Yes’ vote, and pre-referendum polling consistently showing over 70% public support.
Nevertheless, the final outcome is expected to be tighter than indicated by the various polls, for a range of reasons, including the fact that marriage equality is significantly more popular with younger voters, while older voters are more likely to be registered to vote.
Come on Ireland, do it for your country, your fellow LGBTI citizens and the world!