“There is nothing to fear voting for love and equality”

Ireland votes Yes to same sex marriage

Natan Bram

On May 20th, two days before Ireland’s historic vote on gay marriage, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny urged the Irish public to vote Yes to equal marriage arguing “there is nothing to fear voting for love and equality.”

62.1% of Irish who turned out on May 22nd agreed with him as Ireland became the first country in the world to legislate for same sex marriage through a nationwide referendum, and the nineteenth country in the world to legislate for marriage equality. The speed with which Irish public and political opinion has changed is remarkable. It was only in 1993 that homosexual activity was legalised after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights deeming Ireland’s laws on homosexual activity in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2010 civil partnerships for same sex couples were introduced and now marriage has been made gender blind in the Irish Republic. 

Many have pointed to the declining influence of the Catholic Church as a key reason for this change in attitudes. Ireland has become a more secular society and the moral standing of the Church has been greatly diminished by revelations of child sex-abuse scandals involving Catholic clergymen which have come to light in recent years.   These changes in public attitudes are made more explicit in Ireland than in many other democracies because of the need for national referendums to amend the constitution. This month’s vote on equal marriage contrasts starkly with referendums held in the late 20th century on other divisive issues of public morality and personal freedoms, such as the 1983 referendum which introduced a constitutional amendment effectively banning abortion.

Ireland’s move to same-sex marriage is part of a wider global trend. Every few months seems to bring another step forward for same sex marriage rights with another country legalising same sex marriage or civil partnerships. Early in 2015 Finland signed into law equal marriage and a case currently before the United States Supreme Court, Obergefell v Hodges, could see same-sex marriage legalized across the United States. There seems an inevitable global trend of progression towards LGBT rights as the grip of traditional religion weakens and a younger generation, for whom homosexuality and fluid gender identity are the norm, become politically powerful.

However the global picture is not as rosy as it seems. In seven countries in the world homosexuality is punishable by death and in a further 70 homosexuality is a crime. Whilst laws in many countries are liberalising and the number of countries where homosexuality is legal has increased in the last decade, others countries are growing harsher. The passage of a law in Russia imposing fines on those that provide information on homosexuality to children was well publicised and laws against homosexuals and LGBT groups have been strengthened in recent years in places like Nigeria and Gambia.

Ireland’s referendum shows that social attitudes and political realities can change remarkably quickly offering hope for LGBT activists across the world. However the experience of places like Nigeria and Russia shows progress is not inevitable.