A national referendum on extending marriage equality to same-sex couples is unique and seems positively daring. Particularly when it happens in a country such as the Republic of Ireland which has traditionally been seen as conservative and Catholic. Yesterday, the people of Ireland voted. Today, the results coming in show that the “Yes Equality” campaign is riding to an overwhelming victory.
All approximately 20 countries which have previously recognized the right of gay couples to marry have done so by explicit statutory changes or by decisions of the court. In Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Halpern v. Canada (Attorney General), June 10, 2003, upheld a lower court ruling which declared that a definition of marriage which restricted it to a man and a woman violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada became the third jurisdiction in the world (after the Netherlands and Belgium) to legalize same-sex marriages. No other country, except, now, Ireland, has put the issue to a vote of their citizens.
So why did Ireland choose to use a referendum for this purpose? Academics Dr. Jane Suiter of Dublin City University and Dr. Theresa Reidy of University College Cork answered this question for the BBC. They suggested that Ireland has an extensive written national constitution that can be amended only by way of national referendum. Their constitution does not define marriage as being between a man and a woman but any uncertainty about the definition of marriage could lead to court challenges. Rather than enacting legislation that the Supreme Court could potentially strike down and require a referendum in any event, the Irish government elected to go to the people directly.
Recent political history in Ireland provides the context for Ireland’s historic referendum. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland only in 1993, after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2010, the government enacted laws recognizing civil partnerships of gay couples. But these statutory protections were not “constitutionalized” and could be changed as readily as they were granted. The government later held a constitutional convention which considered and then agreed on the proposed question extending marriage rights and the date of the referendum. All political parties in parliament endorsed the proposal, with only five of the 226 members of the Irish parliament saying they would vote against it. This is the latest in a series of constitutional referenda decided by Irish voters. In 1995, the Irish passed a referendum permitting divorce. Once that referendum passed, opinion polls show that divorce faded as a contentious issue.
Television and internet coverage out of Ireland today is jubilant. As of 7:00 p.m. Dublin time, the results are clear and overwhelming: 1,201,607 or 62.29% voting “Yes;” 734,300 or 37.7% voting “No.” With only three constituencies left to report, only one out of 40 has voted “No.” This is a significant change from the 1995 divorce referendum when 25 constituencies said, “No.” The voter turnout was at an all-time high, at 60.44%, including more young people than ever before, and Irish ex-patriots who returned home to vote.
All sides agree that the referendum campaign was carried out respectfully and promoted genuine conversations between people of different views. Although the “Yes” side enjoyed high-level political support, commentators agree that this was a grass-roots campaign across the country. Key to the success of the campaign were the personal stories of ordinary people and celebrities. When they told of their own experiences as gay people, or those of their friends and relatives who are gay, they connected with people who may never have known they were gay, nor ever considered the consequences of their non-mainstream sexuality. One commentator suggested that the significance of the resounding result is that gays have now “achieved respect that is no longer subject to a glass ceiling.” Others called the referendum results the mark of a social revolution in the country. How can one not be encouraged and enthused when the country has endorsed equality, inclusion and diversity so emphatically? Good for Ireland.
Next week, I will post on what the Irish referendum may teach Canada in other contexts.