This story is over 5 years old.


Will Ireland Become the First Country to Legalize Gay Marriage by Popular Vote?

Ireland's population will vote in a referendum to Friday on whether to change the definition of marriage in the country's constitution. The pro-gay marriage camp is ahead but their lead is narrowing.
Photo by Shawn Pogatchnik/AP

On Friday, historically Catholic Ireland is set to become the first country in the world to hold a national referendum on legalizing same sex marriage. While some campaigners criticize the polarizing nature of the debate, others say that just having the discussion has created a more tolerant and liberal state.

The referendum will decide whether to add a single line to the Irish Constitution reading: "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex."


All Ireland's major political parties support the referendum passing, but while polls have indicated a definite victory for the "yes" side, the margin is narrowing, and some say surveys have been skewed by some "no" voters being hesitant to admit to their views.

Irish senator and former presidential candidate David Norris — who won a historic case in 1988 to legalize homosexuality — told VICE News he thought the yes campaign was slipping. "That's because of the very clever manoeuvres by the 'no' side to introduce all kinds of red herrings," he said, such as child welfare, the redefinition of marriage, and surrogacy. "All these things have nothing whatever to do with the referendum which is simply and strictly about extending the categories of people who can get married."

In a country of only 4.5 million people, the prevalent feeling is that every vote counts. Divorce was only passed narrowly by referendum in 1995, with the margin a mere 9,000 votes. This was the second attempt to legalize divorce in Ireland; the first — in 1986 — failed after 65 percent of the electorate voted against it.

Irish emigrants in New York campaigning in favour of same-sex marriage.

Ireland also has no postal vote for emigrants — and the fallout from the 2008 financial crash has meant that young Irish citizens have been leaving the country in droves. The emigration rate hit a high of one person leaving every six minutes in 2013, with more than a third of those aged 15 to 24. Since 2009, this has led to a 25 percent drop in the amount of Irish people in their 20s who actually reside in the country.


One of those who left is Joey Kavanagh, who moved to London in the summer of 2014 to find work as an arts administrator. The 28-year-old told VICE News he hadn't realised there was no postal vote until he moved abroad. Weighing up his options, he booked trip and founded an equality campaign called "Get the Boat to Vote," encouraging Irish emigrants to return to cast a ballot.

Now he estimates that between 30 and 40 other Irish people will be joining him to make the journey on Friday.

"I know the polls at the moment are saying that it's going to be 75/80 percent 'yes' but I don't really believe it's going to be that close," Kavanagh told VICE News, adding that he's currently applying for jobs in Ireland, but thinks he would be deterred if the referendum fails to pass. "It would send out a really negative message. We're the first country in the world to put this to a popular vote in the way that we are and I think a 'no' vote in Ireland would have a negative domino affect."

Irish Health Minister Leo Varadkar recently came out as gay, and is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Homosexuality in Ireland was decriminalized in 1993, after Norris sued Ireland in a case that progressed through the Irish Supreme Court to the European Court of Human Rights. He was represented by Mary Robinson, who would go on to be Ireland's first female president.

"When I grew up it was a criminal offense [to be gay] in public or in private," Norris told VICE News. "There was complete silence about this. The word 'homosexuality' was never mentioned. The word 'gay' hadn't even been thought of in Ireland. There was a complete and absolute silence, and young gay people were left to grow up in ignorance and fear, and that's what it was like."


Related: Irish priest tells congregation he's gay, receives standing ovation

Norris vs. Ireland was perhaps the last time LGBT rights have created a concentrated stir and outpouring of discussion, but the senator said that he now looks back on it "with a certain amount of ironic amusement."

That's because "the 'no' side have said there's plenty of protection, there are the equality provisions in the Irish constitution," he explained, but actually these provisions "have been demonstrated to have no positive application whatsoever for gay people." The only thing that could improve the situation was the marriage referendum, he stated — "putting the rights of gay people — for the first time — in the Irish constitution."

Ireland has traditionally been a very socially conservative country where the Catholic Church has a large amount of societal control. Abortion is still almost completely illegal — including in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities. Contraception was only made fully available in 1985.

The stream of disclosures about the extent of child abuse cases within the church, and its subsequent cover up, resulted in many Irish people retreating from the organization. Norris commented on that, noting: "although [many Irish people] will listen with respect to what is said by the bishops, they won't take it as absolute law. People are thinking for themselves now, not leaving it to the priests to tell them what to do."


Since campaigning began in force, the same-sex marriage referendum has also provoked discord and factionalism within the Catholic Church.

In parishes across the country, some priests have been instructing their congregations to vote no, but others have noticeably failed to deliver the messages — as instructed — while one priest openly announced his support from the pulpit before coming out as gay himself. Norris told VICE News that his niece had walked out of a church in Waterford — a county in the country's southeast — "as the result of a fire and brimstone service against the referendum."

Related: A legal loophole has legalized ecstasy in Ireland — until Thursday

Some non-Catholic religious leaders are also attempting to direct their flocks. Nigerian-born pastor Adewale Kuyebi, from the Christ Apostolic church in the north-west Dublin area of Blanchardstown, told the Irish Times he had been sending Whatsapp messages to members of his 300-person-strong congregation to encourage them to vote 'no' on Friday.

Paddy Manning explaining why he's voting no.

Paddy Manning, a gay man who has been campaigning for a "no" vote with the group "Mothers and Fathers Matter," criticized the behaviour of "yes" campaigners — telling VICE News he felt they had engaged in bullying, and that it had become unacceptable for someone to say that they were voting against gay marriage.

Marriage was "at its heart about children," rather than love, Manning told VICE News, saying that "recognizing difference is not discrimination."


"Every child should have a mother and a father," he continued, though the Referendum Commission has explicitly stated that the constitutional change will have nothing to do with either adoption or surrogacy.

Manning said "no" posters had been taken down around the country, citing the example of a Dublin hotel that offered customers a 50 percent discount for removing a "no" poster from the local area and presenting it while checking in. In a Facebook post, the Charleville Lodge Hotel said: "Feel free to creatively deface the poster. Draw a devil on it or something." But Manning acknowledged that in a referendum there were always campaigners on both sides who took things to extremes.

The small, vocal group of "no" campaigners say their side may actually be in the majority, but it's not showing in the polls as so many are afraid to air their opposition to the constitutional change in public. Meanwhile, campaigners on the "yes" side have been criticized for appealing to emotion rather than reason.

For some, the referendum has inspired unplanned and powerful declarations. Ursula Halligan, the political editor of national television station TV3, asked to be removed from referendum coverage last week after coming out as gay to her employers and telling them she couldn't possibly be objective about the outcome.

"This referendum has changed things," the 54-year-old said in an Irish Times article and subsequent radio interview. Until LGBT rights became a topic of public discussion, "I was resigned to go to my grave with [my] secret. And I shiver to think, there must be so many people who have done that, who have sort of lived incomplete lives and gone to their graves, quietly, because they were too embarrassed or too ashamed to talk about [being gay]."


"I was still full of homophobia to be honest with you, and I'm only realising that now," she continued. "In my head, I'm the greatest homophobe going. No one else in Ireland is a homophobe, but I certainly am."

When Halligan was growing up, being gay "just wasn't talked about. And when it was talked about it was talked about in terms of ridicule or or jeering or jokes, but I knew that it was just the worst thing on earth."

Quietly, she added: "I should have been braver about this. I don't know why it took me so long."

Over the past few months, a heated debate around the nature of "balance" during discussions about LGBT people's rights has run alongside active campaigning.

Irish artist Joe Caslin's mural supporting same-sex marriage

Bella Fitzpatrick is a Dublin-based volunteer coordinator at ShoutOut, an organization that runs school workshops to educate young people about homophobic bullying. In January, her group was prevented from running a workshop in a south Dublin secondary school after the principal said parents had complained, and the workshops couldn't go ahead until the "other side" could also be represented.

Fitzpatrick told VICE News that she loves Dublin but in her opinion "Ireland is a relatively bad place for LGBT people to live and grow up in. You can be lucky, have open minded parents, go to a groovy school," but she has also met young people from rural areas who believe they've never met a gay person.


In terms of the referendum, she said: "I think the largest impact will be on the LGBT kids not even born yet. To come into a society that shows gay relationships the same legal respect to heterosexual relationships. It will stop homophobia being the last safe place for prejudice.

"We've still a very long way to go for our transgender brother and sisters though."

Norris echoed similar sentiments. "Even when we have full equality in Ireland there will still be issues of homophobia and homophobic bullying to be dealt with, but I like to think that is less and less," he said.

"If [the referendum] doesn't pass it will be the biggest slap in the face to vulnerable, young, gay people. I mean their feelings will be agonized if it's not passed. It will be putting them back in the closet. It will be classifying them as second-class citizens. And I think it will lead to an enormous amount of unhappiness among young, gay people."

He continued: "Nevertheless, even when all these issues are ironed out, there will still be the fact that in the majority of countries on this planet gay people are in really severe danger. Danger of being harassed, danger of being arrested and imprisoned, sometimes tortured and even brutally murdered and sometimes even tortured by their own state. So we can't relax into our own comfort zone and pay no attention to what's happening to our brothers and sisters across the planet."

Related: The Queen just honored a politician who believes Hurricane Katrina was caused by gay people

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd