Ireland poised to vote ‘yes’ to gay marriage

Over the rainbow: A mural in Dublin’s Temple Bar area supporting same-sex marriage. © PA

Tomorrow, Ireland could become the first country to approve gay marriage in a country-wide referendum. How important is legislation in the struggle for LGBT rights?

Just 22 years ago, homosexual relationships were illegal in Ireland. Yet tomorrow the historically Catholic country could be the first in the world to introduce marriage equality in a yes/no referendum.

The ‘yes’ campaign is supported by all of the country’s main political parties, and polls currently indicate that the law could be approved with a majority as high as 60-70%. This is a remarkable surge in support of LGBT rights for a country which only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, and did not lift its ban on divorce until 1995.

There are several theories which could explain the country’s sudden shift in opinion. Although around 85% of Ireland identifies as Catholic, the number who attend Mass on Sunday has dropped from 90% in the 1970s to just 35% in 2012. Some argue that this is thanks to the country’s more secular youth, while others believe that it is a reaction against a series of child abuse scandals among Catholic leaders over the last decade.

Whatever the specific reasons in Ireland, the shift in public opinion is part of a global movement in favour of LGBT rights across the developed world. 20 countries have now legalised same-sex marriage, although in America and Mexico, it is limited to certain states. This is largely due to the successful campaigning of gay rights groups such as Stonewall and the Human Rights Campaign, but many also attribute the growing acceptance to a higher number of LGBT characters on television and in the media.

In Ireland, the debate goes on. The Catholic Church has mostly remained quiet on the issue, leaving the ‘no’ campaign to grassroots groups such as the Mandate for Marriage. But the country’s attitudes to religion have changed dramatically over the last few years. As one woman said as she left Mass this month, ‘I can’t understand why anybody is against it.’

Same love

Campaigners argue that legislation like equal marriage is a huge symbolic step in the struggle for LGBT equality. By enshrining equal rights in law, a message is sent to the world that the country accepts and recognises its citizens as they are, regardless of sexuality. It is a triumph for a country whose LGBT citizens were so recently oppressed.

Others argue that the marriage laws are just a symptom of the real change in Ireland and the developed world: the culture. It is how people are treated by their family and neighbours that has a real impact. There is much evidence to suggest that people’s opinions change only once they meet LGBT people in real life. Meanwhile, Modern Family — which features a same-sex couple — is the most popular television show in the USA. It is exposure, not government, that makes the real difference.

You Decide

  1. What do you think has been the most significant change in LGBT equality over the last few years?
  2. Can government legislation change people’s attitudes about social issues?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to the people of Ireland explaining how you think they should vote tomorrow, and why.
  2. Compare the two articles in The Irish Times found under Become an Expert. Are you surprised by the opinions of the two writers? Discuss.

Some People Say...

“Approving same-sex marriage will change Ireland forever.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It sounds like it’s going to happen then?
The polls look that way — but anyone who was following the UK’s general election will know that polls can be misleading. Support for the ‘yes’ vote has declined over the last two months as more people become undecided, and Irish referendums have a history of being unexpectedly close. Realistically, support for the law is significantly in the lead, and most believe that a ‘seismic shift’ will be needed to turn that around now.
Does the UK have same-sex marriage?
Mostly. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act for England and Wales in 2013, and Scotland legalised same-sex marriage a year later. However, Northern Ireland has ‘no plans’ to introduce a similar law.

Word Watch

Catholic
The Catholic Church is the oldest denomination of Christianity, and the oldest institution in the Western world. It still preaches that homosexual acts are a sin.
LGBT
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people are often grouped into this single acronym. However, there is much debate about its inclusivity, with some arguing that it does not acknowledge intersex people, asexual people, or those who do not see themselves as fitting into any category at all.
Decriminalised homosexuality
The UK first made sexual acts between two men illegal in 1885, before Ireland became independent. In England and Wales, the laws were repealed in 1967. Sex between two women was never illegal.
Mass
This is the main service in the Catholic Church, involving four ‘rites’: first, the priest says a prayer for the congregation. Then readings are made from the Bible during the ‘Liturgy of the Word’. This is followed by the ‘Liturgy of the Eucharist’, in which the congregation gives thanks and take bread and wine to symbolise the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Finally, the congregation is blessed.

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