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Ireland votes in historic referendum on same-sex marriage

© Paul Faith, AFP| A woman walks past a mural supporting same-sex marriage in Dublin on May 21

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-05-22

Ireland could become the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by a national referendum as voters head to the polls on Friday to cast their ballot on the issue.

The referendum will ask voters whether they approve of an amendment to the constitution stating that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.

Although Ireland was one of the last countries in Western Europe to decriminalise homosexuality in 1983, it now looks as though it is poised to become the first in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in a popular national vote.

The latest polls released in Ireland last weekend showed that a vast majority of the country supports marriage equality, excluding undecided voters. One study conducted by the market research agency Ipsos MRBI for the Irish Times showed that 70 percent backed the referendum, while 30 percent were opposed.

Another survey by the research company Millward Brown for the Sunday Independent came up with similar results, with 69 percent in favour of legalising same-sex marriage.

On the eve of the referendum, Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a practising Catholic, urged the country to cast a “yes” vote.

"The 'yes' will obliterate, publicly, the remaining barriers of prejudice or the irrational fear of the 'them' and 'us' in this regard," he said.

‘A landmark for Ireland’

Activists say close-knit communities have driven social change in Ireland by rallying around gay friends, family and co-workers, while the collapse of the Catholic Church’s overwhelming influence allowed the political system to slowly come on board.

“Politicians used to rush out of the way to avoid photos with me. Now it’s the reverse,” said David Norris, a senator who led a decades-long campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the country.

“The [same-sex marriage] campaign itself has been a landmark for Ireland ... there is a much clearer and much softer attitude towards gay people,” he said.

While neighbouring Britain decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, a veil of silence smothered the issue in Catholic Ireland. In the 1970s, police monitored Dublin’s only gay bar and tiny gay pride marches were jeered by passers-by.

An attempt to overturn the criminal statute in 1983 failed when a supreme court judge referred to homosexuality as “morally wrong” and contributing to depression and suicide.

“It was a bitter time,” said best-selling Irish author Colm Toibin, who is gay. “It certainly looked to me as though the one thing they are never going to do in Ireland is accept us.”

It was only after the European court in Strasbourg ruled it was incompatible with Europe’s convention on human rights that homosexuality was legalised. Only a third of voters agreed, a poll said.

Wave of change

But by then a wave of social change had hit Ireland as the Church’s domination of politics collapsed after a torrent of sex abuse scandals.

The shift in attitudes that followed was driven as much by the “mothers, sisters, workmates” of gay men as by activist groups, said Toibin.

When the minister of justice set the age of consent for gay men to 17, she said the mother of a gay teenager had convinced her to do it.

As more public figures came out of the closet, gay bars started to appear in central Dublin and annual gay pride parades grew from a few hundred marchers in the early 1990s to 40,000 last year.

“The speed of all that change has been pretty incredible,” said Rory O’Neil, a drag queen who has helped lead the marriage equality campaign. “That is partly because Ireland is a small country. Everyone has a gay uncle or a gay neighbour.”

The final piece of the puzzle was the rallying of the political system, culminating in Kenny’s visit to a party held at O’Neil’s Panti Bar late last year.

“Five years ago no Taoiseach [prime minister] would have sat down and decided to appear in a gay bar,” said O’Neil. “The idea that this would play visually well is remarkable.”

A month later, one of the most senior members of Kenny’s cabinet, Health Minister Leo Varadkar, came out as gay on national radio, unleashing a wave of media support.

Activists say they are worried that the media and political consensus may have discouraged opponents of same-sex marriage from speaking out and that the vote may be closer than the polls show.

But if it passes, Saturday will be “a day of liberation,” said Toibin. “But I think people feel that whatever happens, there has been a sea change.”


Date created : 2015-05-21


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