Marriage Equality in Ireland?

Of all the many signs of a huge shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage, the biggest yet could occur far from the legal and political barricades of this country, in today’s referendum on marriage equality in Ireland. That’s right, Ireland.

At the Atlantic, Mo Moulton summarizes the symbolic stakes:

On Friday, May 22, Irish citizens will vote on whether or not to insert the following line in their constitution: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” If the referendum passes—and current polls suggest it’s got a decent shot—Ireland will become the first country in the world to approve gay marriage through a popular vote, rather than by legislation or judicial decision. The fact that the outcome is too close to call represents a stunning transformation for a nation that the future Pope Paul VI described in 1946 as “the most Catholic country in the world.”

Certainly there are other contestants for the “most Catholic country” designation, notably the Polish homeland of the later Pope, John Paul II. But for Americans whose own Catholic hierarchy has always been profoundly Irish, and notably conservative on every issue related to sexuality, the suggestion that the Auld Sod would legalize same-sex marriage when the subject remains unresolved here is rather astonishing.

Moulton argues that Ireland’s Catholic heritage is in fact partially responsible for the tolerant trend:

Pressure from Europe helped start the revolution in Ireland’s approach to homosexuality. But in recent years, the country has developed its own distinctive approach to gay rights, unique in the world for its simultaneous embrace of sexual diversity and emphasis on family and community. A rejection of Church authority but not of many Catholic ideals, it could offer global Catholicism itself a way forward.

This “rejection of Church authority,” of course, is significantly attributable to the clerical child abuse scandal, which may have hit Ireland harder than any other country. But according to Moulton, the persistence of Catholic culture in Ireland is shown by the especially pro-family, pro-marriage, and celebratory atmosphere of the marriage equality campaign there.

[T]he Irish gay-rights movement has met its conservative neighbors at least halfway. In their 2013 submission to the Constitutional Convention, a forum tasked with developing recommendations on constitutional revision in a variety of areas, the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network noted that “more than a thousand couples have registered and celebrated their civil partnerships which have been treated as weddings by family, friends and neighbours across every county in Ireland.” Marriage Equality argued in its submission that Ireland was ready to “cherish same sex families equally with heterosexual married families”; its first point in favor of same-sex marriage was that “marriage is good for families and society.”

As is the case everywhere else LGBT rights have advanced, of course, much of the change has to be credited to brave people refusing to be ignored or silenced, and the innate decency of their family, friends and work colleagues who cannot forever discriminate against people they know.

Even if the referendum fails today (and with polls not closing until 10:00 PM Irish time, we probably won’t know anything when we sign off today), its audacity is encouraging.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.