Today, May 22nd 2015 will be a day to go down in history. The Republic of Ireland, a country that only officially decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, is holding a referendum on same-sex marriage. If the suggested change to the constitution passes, Ireland will become the first country to allow same-sex marriage by popular vote. But in a country where the Catholic Church still remains an important fundament of society, and where many groups actively promote traditional family values, the referendum has caused both controversy and celebration.
Will Ireland, with its traditionally strong Catholic Church legalise gay marriage? The outcome of today’s referendum is still up in the air, and although opinion polls suggest that a majority favour the proposal, an outspoken minority strongly disagrees. Certain groups argue that civil partnerships, which were introduced through the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, have already ensured the same rights for heterosexual and homosexual couples. However, countless of others within the LGBT community and in society at large are not satisfied with this solution, claiming that the legislation still differs between marriage for heterosexual couples on one hand, and civil partnerships for homosexual couples on the other.
But if a civil partnership is already in place, and acceptance for same-sex relationships is increasing in Irish society, why is this referendum so controversial? There are of course several factors, but a major one is an institution that has long been an essential building block of Irish society: the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church traditionally played a major role in almost every aspect of everyday life in Ireland, which isn’t surprising considering that in 1984, a reported 90 percent of Irish Catholics regularly attended mass. This figure has however plummeted, and in 2011 only 18 percent were regular churchgoers. And although the Irish constitution opens with a reference to The Most Holy Trinity, the church’s role as a religious, social and economic powerhouse in the country has suffered several blows.
Mass attendance first started to decline in the 1990’s when the Celtic Tiger swept over Ireland. At the same time, several scandals reared their ugly head. For example, the affair between Bishop Eamon Casey and an American divorcee which resulted in an illegitimate son, or Reverend Michael Cleary’s secret family with his housekeeper. However, these blows were nothing compared to what was to come. Since the mid 1990’s, reports and court cases concerning priests and other church officials abusing children have surfaced, receiving increasing public attention. In 2009, The Ryan Report unveiled systematic abuse in church-run institutions that lasted from the 1930’s until the final institutions closed in the 1990’s. These revelations, and especially the fact that the church repeatedly covered up cases of abuse, have unsurprisingly enraged many and undermined the church’s authority. The church’s declining influence is an important piece of the puzzle when attempting to understand how a traditionally conservative country is now voting on what still remains a controversial question.
Although the church is urging the public to reject the proposal, the political establishment, including Taoiseach (Prime minister) Enda Kenny, is no longer leaning on the church for support and is backing the Yes vote. Another supporter and arguably one of Ireland’s most famous people, U2s Bono, recently spoke out in favour of the Yes-campaign saying that “trying to co-opt the word marriage is like trying to co-opt the word love”. He continued to point out that the definition of marriage has already changed over time, mentioning as an example that some characters in the Bible had several wives. A majority of the Irish population seem to agree with him, with the support for marriage equality increasing from 56 percent in 2007 to around 70 percent in 2014.
However, there are still many groups attempting to turn the tide and return to more traditional family values. One such example, though perhaps slightly extreme, is the Alliance for the Defence of the Family and Marriage (Adafam), which has equalled voting for same-sex marriage to voting for an “Islamic State-style sharia law”. The group also claims that same-sex couples die younger, are more prone to cancer and are more likely to abuse children. Other groups such as Mothers and Fathers Matter are also in favour of keeping the current definition of marriage in the constitution, stating that it is “the most fundamental of all human institutions” and “the natural environment for raising children”.
Naturally, there are about as many opinions on the definition of marriage as there are people to define it. However, after the polling stations close at 10 pm today and the votes are counted, not only will Ireland have made a decision on the constitutional definition of marriage in the Republic, but it might also have made history.