'Conservative' Ireland set to adopt same-sex marriage. What changed?

Ireland's reputation as a devoutly Catholic and conservative country is being defied by the prospect of becoming the first nation to approve gay marriage by referendum. But it's not as odd as one might think.

Catha­l McNaughton/Reuters
People have their wedding pictures taken at the Papal Cross in Phoenix Park in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said on Sunday that Ireland must seize its opportunity to become the first country to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote when it holds a referendum on the issue on Friday.

Same-sex marriage seems like a foregone conclusion in Ireland. 

A referendum held today will, if passed, make Ireland the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. It will also, due to a quirk of jurisprudence, place recognition for it directly into the constitution. 

Every Irish political party supports same-sex marriage and opinion polls say up to 70 percent of voters agree. A former president and a string of celebrities have come out in favor of the change. And a Dublin-based company behind a taxi-hailing app that supports the move is even offering free trips to the polling booth.

This in a country where some 85 percent of the population identify as Roman Catholic, and where the church was an unassailable institution for decades. Ireland didn’t even decriminalize homosexuality until 1993 – and only did so as a result of a European court judgment. 

So how did "conservative" Ireland come to be at the vanguard on legislating gay rights?

Time and money seem to be the answers. Despite a financial downturn, Ireland today is unrecognizable from that of the past. With the conflict in Northern Ireland largely over and the economy transformed, it is integrated into world markets, in particular the EU. “Economics led all sorts of change. Genuinely Ireland is an example of an open economy leading to an open society [but] it’s not a process that is complete yet,” says economist Constantin Gurdgiev.

Still, early forecasts of an easy win for referendum supporters have been dampened by a late surge in campaigning by opponents. Moreover, the Conservative Party's surprise victory in Britain's May 7 election – pollsters had unanimously predicted a hung parliament – showed a gulf between social media and press opinion guided by polling data, and actual voting intentions. Just as so-called “shy Tories” delivered an unexpected Conservative majority in Britain, some are now wondering if “shy Nos” could carry the day in Ireland.

New Ireland?

On a sunny Thursday evening in south Dublin, Ireland’s most liberal district, the campaign posters tell a mixed story, with a roughly 50-50 split between those advocating Yes and No. But the reality on the ground appears different, with overwhelming expressions of support for Yes among urbanites. 

Colum Ward, who has been stewarding canvassers, rapidly got over his nervousness with all the positive responses when he knocked on doors. “It has been one of the best experiences of my life,” he says.

Colin, aged 29, is one of those who answered the door: “I have loads of gay and lesbian friends. If constitutional change helps them, then I’m all for it,” he says.

Two more young women, who cheered as they encountered the canvass group, expressed some hesitation about going door to door. Lorna, said she was “not [totally] confident," for fear of running into argument. "Someone I know [canvassing] in Tipperary [in the rural south of Ireland] says there are some No voters there,” she said.

But on the whole, the Dublin campaigners are typical of the Yes effort: young, upbeat, and cosmopolitan – much as Ireland has become. Indeed, it resembles other EU nations, with its urbanization and a growing tech sector. This transformation runs from the silly – beards and boutique beers – to the substantial, with growing tension about the country’s traditionalist stances on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

For Yes advocates, the issue is clear and simple: equality. Lecturer Cara Daly, who is gay and has two siblings who married in recent years, says a Yes vote would be a recognition of gay people’s status in society. “It would mean that I was treated equally to my brother and sister. There’s great joy in that. At the back of my mind you’re always thinking ‘I’m not the same as everyone’ else.”

A higher proportion of No votes is expected in rural areas, but over 60 percent of Ireland’s population now lives in urban areas. Age is considered another key factor, with young people significantly more likely to support the measure.

And though religious affiliation remains high by European standards, the Catholic Church's moral authority in Ireland has greatly weakened after two decades of scandals. 

Linda Hogan, chair of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin, says that despite the church's official opposition to gay marriage, many among the faithful are finding their own path on the issue. “There’s certainly a generational shift [but] you can also see a substantial change in the attitudes of many religious people in the last five years. I think, myself, this is because of the increased visibility of gay couples after the civil partnerships act,” she says.

Religious opinion divides

The majority of No campaigners are motivated by a view of marriage informed by religious faith. They argue that the vote is about the nature of the family, and that children are entitled, where possible, to a relationship with their birth parents. A letter advocating a No vote was read out in some Catholic parishes on Sunday May 17.

Yes campaigners respond by saying the issue at hand is legal equality, and that surrogacy and adoption are being used as wedge issues.

Still, religious opinion is not uniform here. Various religious groups and clergy, including some Catholic priests, have advocated a Yes vote.

Nor is the gay community unanimously Yes. Paddy Manning from Kilkenny, who is gay, plans to vote No, arguing that the referendum amounts to government overreach. “Marriage in the constitution serves a very particular purpose. It’s not an adult partnership agreement. This [vote] is a state power grab: states shouldn’t get the right to grant families. Marriage, through natural parenthood, creates a legal unit impervious to the state,” he says.

Despite the polls, Mr. Manning is confident of a No vote: “This should win; the fact that it’s even close says something."

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