The Republic of Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through direct popular vote when the country voted ‘Yes’ in a recent referendum. The first same-sex marriages might reportedly take place as soon as this Autumn, following 62% being in favour of the change in the country’s constitution. The higher than average turnout of 61% was higher than the poll to ratify the 1998 Good Friday agreement which is widely thought to have significantly contributed to peace in the Republic and the United Kingdom according to Referendum Ireland. Of the 1.95 million votes cast in the referendum 62.07% supported the constitutional change whilst 37.93% voted for the constitution to remain the same according to Referendum Ireland.
The legalisation comes 22 years after Ireland decriminalised homosexuality which may be seen by some as a resounding victory for equality in the country. The ‘Yes’ campaign gained cross-party support in the build-up to the referendum although the Catholic Church and the Iona Institute, a socially conservative think-tank, were the main opposition. The referendum appears to have caught the imagination of the Irish public as evident from the high turnout, especially amongst younger voters. The increase in registered voters shows the interest which the referendum has sparked amongst many first-time voters.
Same-sex marriage seems to be gaining support across the world with nineteen countries legalising the unions since the Netherlands became the first country to do so in 2001. In the last five years, twelve countries have legalised same-sex marriages which may indicate growing support internationally. The United States and Mexico both possess regional right to marry laws which mean that same-sex couples may be married in certain states in the country. Although both countries may see nationwide legalisation of same-sex unions in the near future due to cases reaching their supreme courts recently. According to Freedom to Marry, an organisation which aims to promote marriage equality, Slovenia, Colombia and Australia may be considered to be moving towards legalisation due to recent laws protecting homosexual couple’s rights regarding adoption and expansion of family status.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage aims to increase equality by providing couples with the same rights and protections as possessed by straight marriages. The law being passed by the popular vote shows that the majority of people in Ireland seem to believe that marriage is open to everyone regardless of gender. The reasons behind the referendum being passed might indicate generational change with some voters having been born since homosexuality was legalised. This generation gap might be evident in countries other than Ireland as well. An example of the generation gap is in the Republican Party, who traditionally oppose same-sex marriage, in the United States. According to Pew Research 61% of Republicans aged between 18 and 29 support same-sex marriage which is 31 percentage points higher than the number of Republicans who support it aged 65 and over.
The Irish referendum may highlight the movement away from people defining their moral and social beliefs through religion. The Catholic Church’s opposition to the ‘Yes’ campaign might be expected to challenge younger people’s allegiance. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, stated the referendum may act as a “reality check” and reportedly referred to the ‘Yes’ vote as a “social revolution”. It might indicate the movement towards an increasingly personal sphere on moral beliefs independent of their religion.
Same-sex marriage appears to be gaining acceptance due to more countries legalising or moving towards legalisation. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the equivalent to Prime Minister, stated that “the decision makes every citizen equal and will strengthen the institution of marriage for all existing and future marriages.” The promotion of marriage equality may spread acceptance of homosexuality in Ireland, especially for future generations for whom it may be the normal for marriage to be a union of two persons regardless of gender.
How may the success of the constitutional amendment regarding same-sex marriage highlight a change in the role which religion plays?