Love Won: The Irish Referendum

Love Won: The Irish Referendum

Last May, the Republic of Ireland legalized same-sex marriage, just 22 years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993. This was put to a referendum in Ireland due to the change to the Irish Constitution’s definition of Marriage. While there are obvious and real issues with allowing a public vote on human rights, the Yes campaign in Ireland worked incredibly hard to win 62.1% of the vote.

Unsurprisingly, a key focus on both sides of the campaign was on family values, particularly on the idea of parenthood. The No campaign based their argument on how same-sex parents would be a danger to children. Same-sex marriage would not only deprive children of a mother and a father, but would also expose all children to homosexuality.

Groups such as the “Educators for Conscience,” a group of teachers, parents and academics argued that the constitutional amendment would result in a situation where “a teacher who gives preferential treatment to a view of marriage as between a man and woman over a same-sex marriage will be seen to be discriminating.” This group expressed concern over the proposed expectation that teachers explain the meaning of the words “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual.” They were worried that they would, and I quote directly from their representative, “have to teach stuff like this,” in other words, broaden sex education in Irish schools to go beyond heterosexuality.

A 1995 anti-divorce billboard with the text: Hello Divorce... Bye Bye Daddy... Vote No!
A 1995 anti-divorce billboard. (Source: Broadsheet)

The No campaign brought the debate down to one focus — that marriage equals parenthood. Therefore endorsing same-sex marriage would somehow eradicate the Irish family institution. The same logic was trotted out for the No campaign in Ireland’s last referendum — the legalization of divorce in 1996. One of the lasting images from that referendum was the No campaign’s posters reading “Hello Divorce… Bye, Bye Daddy”.

Fintan O’ Toole, writing for the Irish Times rightly pointed out, that the best thing the No campaign could do, would be to make a “Hello same-sex marriage… Bye Bye Mammy” poster. As O’Toole stated,

[gblockquote]“those who oppose single-sex marriage will insist that they are concerned that every child should have both a mother and a father. I’m sure they are, but they’re not really going to campaign on a platform that says women can’t bring up children without men.”[/gblockquote]

The reality is that one in five children in the Republic of Ireland lives in a one-parent family in Ireland (18.3%), with 308,109 children living with a single mother. The No campaigners were cruel, but they weren’t stupid. The No campaign tried to erase lesbian and bisexual women’s right to motherhood, and focused on the “forced cruelty” of children with two fathers. The traditional view of a family has appointed the mother as the main caretaker in Irish families, whether there is a father present or not. This tradition is enshrined into the Irish Constitution, i.e. that women’s right to motherhood is unwavering. Article 41 of the Irish Constitution states “the [Irish] State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved …. The State shall, therefore endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” An Irish woman’s place therefore is in the home, as a mother. Same-sex marriage challenges this and disrupts the notion that we need to assign gender to care-taking.

While the Divorce referendum passed by a very slim majority, this time, the vote came in with all but one of the 47 constituencies voting in favor of same-sex marriage. The 60% voter turnout, and mass media attention has to be because of how the Yes campaign rallied the young, liberal voters, to bring along the older generations of Ireland. Disparate and wide ranging, there were a number of big gestures such as artist Joe Caslin’s murals in Dublin and Galway of same-sex couples. The big thing for the Yes campaign was in asking people to bring one person with them.

Mural by Joe Caslin on Medieval Caherkinmonwee Castle in County Galway. (David Sexton)
Mural by Joe Caslin on Medieval Caherkinmonwee Castle in County Galway. (David Sexton)

Students at Trinity College took a lead in encouraging other young people to talk to their family members who might not be voting, or potentially voting No. They all agreed to ring their Grannies and talk about the upcoming vote.

Viral videos were a massive part of the Yes Campaign with everyone from Mrs Brown to Enda Kenny encouraging people to ‘have one chat’ with someone and convince them to vote Yes.

Former President Mary McAleese has always been a strong advocate for gay rights, and was highly vocal during the campaign, reinforcing the family values theme. Her son, Justin McAleese, wrote a much discussed article in a leading Irish newspaper discussing his difficulty with coming out in Ireland just a decade before. McAleese followed suit with the focus on family values stating,

[gblockquote]“We want — in the words of the Proclamation — ‘the children of the nation to be cherished equally’ …. The adult children, the children yet unborn, the gay children yet unborn. We want them to be born into a world where if they fall in love with someone they can express that love fully.”[/gblockquote]

Last year, England, Scotland and Wales legalized same-sex marriage. As #lovewins trends on social media across the US and indeed the world, there’s one little pocket this side of the Atlantic that refuses to budge on same-sex marriage. Activists in Northern Ireland refer to the state as a “sore thumb” for so obviously sticking out of place. The pressure in Northern Ireland to make changes to the law is building. In the last government motion on marriage equality, most nationalist politicians, and non-defining politicians such as Green Party representatives, voted in favor of same-sex marriage while Unionists, including the biggest party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), voted against.

As Northern Ireland remains the last country in western Europe where LGB couples are barred from getting married, the pressure from within and outside is growing. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International, and a local gay rights group, the Rainbow Project, held a mass rally in support of equal marriage on June 13th in which 20,000 people are reported to have attended.

Amnesty International March for Equality, June 13, 2015, at the Belfast City Centre. (Kevin Scott/Presseye)
Amnesty International March for Equality, June 13, 2015, at the Belfast City Centre. (Kevin Scott/Presseye)

A legal test case has also been lodged with Belfast’s courts, which recently gained some traction. A gay couple wants their marriage in England to be legally recognized in Northern Ireland. They have challenged the legislation banning same-sex marriage on the basis that it is discriminatory against gay and lesbian couples. The judge has ruled that this case should proceed to a full hearing. Northern Ireland thankfully doesn’t need a referendum; our politicians can make the change now — or wait until it’s enforced through the courts.

The last year has been tough for the queer community. The No campaign played on our insecurities, fears, and feelings of isolation. The Yes campaign gave us hope. While we fretted over what would happen if the public voted No, the fact that most of our politicians, celebrities (thanks, Bono!) and straight allies worked with us has repaired some of the No campaign’s damage. While same-sex marriage is by no means the end point in the fight for equality, the Republic has provided us in Northern Ireland with inspiration and justification to continue calling for our human rights. A million Irish voters made their way to the polling station, and demanded we all share the same rights. This has made a big impression in Northern Ireland, hopefully big enough to follow suit.

Featured image caption: Large mural painted by Joe Caslin in support of the Ireland same-sex marriage referendum. (William Murphy/Flickr | CC BY-SA)

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.