On May 22, Irish voters rewrote history as they went to the ballots and voted to allow same-sex couples the right to marry. The decision makes Ireland the first country in the world to legalize same-sex civil marriage by popular vote.
By approving the referendum, which stipulates that “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” Ireland is pioneering a new era of civil liberties. The hashtag #hometovote was trending over the weekend—testament to the massive mobilization of Irish people who returned home to take part in this history-making referendum.
Ireland has been experiencing a massive cultural shift that cannot be explained by one factor alone. What was for centuries a Catholic stronghold has rapidly evolved into a much more socially liberal place. The data gathered from public surveys over the past decade show clear momentum on the same-sex marriage issue in Ireland. Between 2005 and 2012, the proportion of supporters of equal marriage grew from 51 percent to 75 percent. The change in attitudes is remarkable given that only 20 years ago, homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland.
The Irish moral code that was once inspired by religious teachings and conservative values is now giving way to support for individual privacy and expanding marital and other rights. This shift laid the groundwork for the sustained advocacy efforts of LGBTI groups, first resulting in the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010—an act of the Irish Parliament, which came into force on January 2011, allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships.
The Yes Equality campaign established by GLEN, Marriage Equality, and the ICCL—groups working for equality for LGBT people for many years—along with many supporters and collaborators, was pivotal to Friday’s victory. Over the past several years, these groups have learned to adapt their strategies to changing social and political opportunities and setbacks. They have perfected their positive framing and messaging with a campaign focused on equality, love, and compassion, rather than minority rights and privileges.
An opinion piece in the Irish Times summed up this framework: “Marriage is simply about two people who love each other coming together with shared aspirations for a future life, and whether those two people are of a different gender or the same gender, that love and those aspirations are equally valid and deserve equal validation.” This message resonated with the silent majority, including many practicing Catholics, who saw the referendum as a chance to show solidarity and embrace a brighter future in which all citizens can enjoy full civic equality.
The campaign captured the hearts and minds of many Irish voters, thousands of whom—both gay and straight—used their annual leave to join it, which had cultural ramifications that go well beyond the referendum. Countless Irish families have now had a conversation about LGBTI people, their relationships, and their rights. According to activists, in the last couple of months, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of young people calling LBGTI organizations seeking guidance and advice.
The level of turnout, the quality of the debate, the positive messaging, the tone of the campaign, and the excellent collaborative work done by the broad coalition of diverse actors—from LGBTI groups to trade unions, from political parties to progressive religious leaders—sends a strong message to other European countries. In Italy, a same-sex partnership bill is currently being discussed. In Slovenia, the Constitutional Court may allow a referendum on same-sex marriage to take place. A win in what used to be perceived as a socially conservative Catholic country has made Ireland a bellwether for cultural shifts of similar nature elsewhere in Europe.
The battle isn’t over. Irish religious groups continue to call for a “conscience clause” that would allow individuals and companies to discriminate on the basis of their beliefs. There will be legal challenges to the constitutionality of the amendment in line with recent cases in other jurisdictions where marriage has been adopted.
But at the end of the day, legalizing same sex marriage in Ireland is a crucial victory for supporters of open society and a watershed moment for the LGBTI movement in Europe. It was a homegrown victory achieved by the hard work of activists, campaigners, and volunteers—and by, not least of which, the courage of the Irish people, who chose diversity and equality as the way forward for their country.