On Friday, the Republic of Ireland will hold a nationwide referendum on gay marriage. Voters will respond “Yes” or “No” in regards to whether the following phrase should be added to the Irish Constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with the law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” If the “Yes” vote wins, the country will be the first in the world to make gay marriage a constitutionally-guaranteed right. Eighteen countries and several U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, but none have accomplished that feat through popular vote and none of those nations have the law written into their constitution. Given Ireland’s Roman Catholic population and history of conservatism, the country is poised to be an unlikely leader in this civil rights issue.
Most polls thus far have predicted that the “Yes” vote will win. According to the Telegraph, last weekend’s polls showed that between 63 and 73 percent of voters were in favor of same sex marriage. According to NBC News, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny supports the “Yes” movement but has deemed the race too close to call. “Marriage is a public statement that two people want to spend their lives together; it is an institution that our society values and affords status to,” Kenny said to the USA Today. “This is what the referendum is about: equality. Everyone should have the right to marry the person they love.” Several other prominent Irish names and politicians — including, of course, Bono — have voiced their support for the movement.
The support for marriage equality in Ireland is surprising for several reasons. The nation only decriminalized homosexuality as recently as 1993. A similar referendum to allow divorce in the country — again, opposed by the Catholic Church — only narrowly passed in 1995. Civil unions for homosexual couples were officially recognized in 2010. Abortion is still illegal.
The major hurdle for marriage equality in Ireland is, of course, religion. About 85 percent of Irish citizens self-identify as Roman Catholic. The religion, and its conservative values, are embedded in the nation’s culture and history. Metropolitan cities like Dublin inevitably lean towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there’s a large population who could stun the nation with a “No” vote on Friday.
That’s what the Catholic Church hopes will happen. The Church has been running an active campaign for the “No” movement, emphasizing the effect that a “Yes” vote would have on families around the country. Other groups have spread campaign posters with images of a mother and father kissing their child have been around Dublin, accompanied by the words “Children deserve a mother and a father … Vote No.”
The result of the vote in Ireland may not be officially connected to the Catholic church, but it could represent how many who identify as Catholic feel about the issue. Under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has experienced an unprecedented era of social liberalism. In regards to homosexuality, Pope Francis has said the following: “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency is not the problem … they’re our brothers.” While that statement was interpreted as an acceptance of homosexuality, Pope Francis has remained firm in his opposition against gay marriage. In a recent speech in the Philippines, the pope referred to gay marriage as “ideological colonization that threatens the family.”
Social justice occurs slowly, and it’s taken an inordinate amount of time for a mere eighteen countries to recognize marriage equality. Some U.S. states have made progress on this human rights issue, but the country as a whole still lags behind other developed nations. It would have been impossible to predict that a country as religious and socially conservative as Ireland would be the first to guarantee marriage equality, but the result of the popular vote will show how people truly feel about the issue. Hopefully the “Yes” side will prevail, and hopefully the Catholic Church will take notice.
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