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Gay marriage

Gavan Reilly, Dublin
May 21, 2015

Friday's referendum could see Ireland become the first country to legalize gay marriage by public vote - but the public may be more conservative than opinion polls suggest. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.


From the outside Ireland seems a deeply conservative country. 84 percent of the population is Catholic; the national broadcaster airs the Angelus bells twice a day; its Constitution recognizes God as the source of all authority; Conservative parties have led every government since 1923; and parliament begins every day with a prayer invoking God's "holy inspirations."

But, as if often the case with Ireland, the facts don't reveal the full picture. A series of abuse scandals have rocked public faith in the Catholic Church, and many now freely dismiss its teachings on many issues. Bans on divorce and contraception are long gone, and polls show that most voters would like to relax its rigid laws on abortion.

In 2011 Ireland elected its first openly gay MP, and five years after passing laws granting civil partnership to same-sex couples, on Friday it will vote on giving them access to full civil marriage. A Yes vote would see Ireland become the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote. All the major political parties are in favor, and among politicians, only a handful of non-aligned figures are opposing it.

"An Irish wedding is a one-to-three day celebration," laughs deputy prime minister Joan Burton after one Yes campaign meeting in Dublin. "People have become much more familiar with the fact that their friends, their cousins, their children may be gay or lesbian."

Fudged focus

Few would disagree. The referendum debate has seen little discussion of homosexuality itself - and many on the No side have no problem with the central issue of giving constitutional recognition to gay couples. Campaigners for a No vote originally claimed that same-sex marriage would dilute the special status of opposite-sex partners, but that case has largely been disregarded and forgotten.

"I really doubt if my many heterosexual married friends will wake up on May 23, look at each other and say, 'Oh darling, I feel so less married to you today.' I doubt it. It doesn't seem real to me," says Senator David Norris. In 1988 Norris won a landmark victory at the European Court of Human Rights, forcing Ireland to legalize sex between consenting men. "We want to live in the real world, with real people."

man talking into microphones Copyright: Gavan Reilly
Norris says a yes vote is no threat to opposite-sex partnershipsImage: DW/G. Reilly

Instead, the main argument advanced by the No side is that giving constitutional recognition to same-sex couples may also require Ireland to give them equal access to surrogacy and other methods of assisted reproduction. This might then force Irish law to endorse a situation where a child is raised without ever knowing, or involving, its biological mother or father.

"We're being asked to vote for a fraud," according to Keith Mills, a spokesman for the "Mothers & Fathers Matter" group. Mills is himself gay, but believes there are fundamental differences between the relationship a man can have with a woman, and with another man. "I have personal experience of both, and I believe that the relationship a man forms with a woman is primarily based on having a family, and that is not the case for same-sex unions."

The Yes side, however, also presents itself as a family values campaign. Irish adoption law already allows children to be put in the care of gay couples, and surrogacy is not regulated at all. As a result, same-sex couples already have and raise children in Ireland - and a No vote would not change that. Supporters, therefore, say voting Yes would be nothing but a public recognition that non-traditional families are equal in the eyes of both society and the law.

group of people with banner Copyright: Gavan Reilly
The 'No' camp says children need a father and a motherImage: DW/G. Reilly

Red herrings

But, they add, debates involving children are red herrings - designed to confuse the issue and distract voters from the true question: whether Ireland should look beyond the sex of two people who want their country to recognise their love. For Yes campaigners who are also gay, the debate is even more impassioned; some privately admit their exhaustion at going from door to door, asking their fellow citizens to consider them as equals.

On that, the Irish public seems clear: polls over the last year showed nearly 80 percent of voters planned to vote Yes when the referendum arrived. But as other issues have become entangled in the debate, voters have become less certain. One weekend poll showed just 53 percent are certain to vote Yes - and some suspect, because No voters fear being labelled as homophobes, the actual dissent could be even higher.

"There's been strong groupthink among the media and the political elite," argues Senator Jim Walsh, who resigned from the Fianna Fáil party to lobby for a No vote. "I know of politicians in all parties who'll be voting No but they're certainly not prepared to say it."

Ireland will discover on Saturday whether that's true - and if this landmark referendum is just another case of where the facts don't tell the whole story.

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