Is Ireland About to Become the First Nation to Legalize Gay Marriage by Popular Vote?

The Yes vote is gaining significant traction in the polls, but as we learned in the UK Election, anything could happen. The vote will take place today and be announced on Saturday in Dublin.

David Gilmour

The 2011 Dublin Gay Pride Parade. Photo via Flickr user William Murphy

On Friday, Ireland will hold a historic referendum on marriage equality. If the population votes Yes—as the polls suggest—Ireland will become the first country ever to legalize gay marriage by popular decision.

Inside the halls of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, all four major parties have already voiced their support for the constitutional change, but it will be Ireland's citizens that will dictate the course of the moment.

Polls published by Irish newspapers last weekend show marriage equality advocates have a significant lead, with somewhere between 63 and 73 percent of voters leaning Yes, 27 to 31 percent of voters leaning No, and the remaining chunk being undecided.

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That said, polls don't always tell the full story, as we saw in the recent UK General Election, and it's possible some No voters aren't telling the pollsters what they really think, just as the "Shy Tories" did in the UK. Also, over the past month the polls have tightened, and both sides are working to mobilize the public in advance of the vote on Friday.

Dublin Castle. Photo via Flickr user Liping Yim

The Two Sides

Unsurprisingly, the campaign has been heated—a fringe No group at one point distributed a hostile leaflet that claimed gay people contract cancer early in life, while the egging of a ten-year-old girl who was sitting on a No float attracted bad press for the Yes camp. Both sides have also accused the other of being bankrolled from across the Atlantic—the Yes coalition claimed the Nos were backed by right-wing evangelical groups in the US, while the No campaigners responded by saying their enemies were funded by an American billionaire.

The fact that the Minister of State for Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, was asked to remove his Yes badge on live TV shows just how contentious this issue has become. Aspirations and fears have been openly discussed by the public and representatives on both campaigns.

Behind the Yes campaign are a number of advocacy groups that have worked to change social perceptions and to champion LGBT rights, a push that's supported by Amnesty International and a host of Irish celebrities, including Colin Farrell, Chris O'Dowd, and Hozier.

The campaign has worked on winning the hearts and minds of the population, focusing on the personal stories of LGBT people. Marriage equality as a basic human rights issue is at the core of their message.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a giant leap forward to change forever what it means to grow up LGBT in Ireland." –Michael Barron

"This referendum, at one level, is simple: It's about extending civil marriage to same sex couples," said Michael Barron, the Founding Director of BeLonG To, a national organization for LGBT youth. "However, it means so much more. It means creating a fair and equal Ireland for this generation and future generations of young people. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a giant leap forward to change forever what it means to grow up LGBT in Ireland."

The Catholic Church has voice support for a No vote, with a bishop writing a public letter emphasizing that "the union of a man and a woman is quite different from the union of two men or two women. Also backing the No vote are groups like Mothers and Fathers Matter and Lawyers for No.

The No campaign has concerned itself with marriage as a institution innately tied to family and the raising of children. This is something that the Yes campaign tends to view as sidestepping the issue, given that gay and lesbian couples can already adopt in Ireland. The No campaign has been openly supported by respected sportsman and high profile GAA footballer Ger Brennan and journalist Paddy Manning, who is himself gay.

Tom Finegan, of Mothers and Fathers Matter, spoke to VICE outlining the No argument:

"A No vote is the only way Irish law will be able to protect a child's right to a mother and a father in laws relating to adoption, surrogacy, and donor-assisted human reproduction. If we vote Yes, same-sex married couples will have a constitutional right to procreate, which in practice can only be vindicated through use of donor-assisted human reproduction and surrogacy. In such a case, the constitution will require that children be deliberately deprived of knowledge and contact with their own biological parents in order to further adult interests."

St Michael's Church in Creeslough, Ireland. Photo via Flickr user Steve Cadman

A Changing Ireland

If the data from the polls reveals anything, it's that Ireland has changed remarkably in a very short period of time. Same-sex sexual activity was only decriminalized in 1993; divorce was legalized in 1995, also by referendum. The divorce referendum was an extremely slim victory that was decided by less than 1 percent of the vote—though that did reveal that even then, Catholic monopoly on morality was declining.

A country that once historically identified as Catholic was seeing church attendance nosedive from as early as 1990. Even though 85 percent of the population still identifies as Roman Catholic, the number of practicing Catholics that attend Mass once a week has dropped from 90 percent in 1984 to 35 percent in 2011, according to a survey released by the Association of Catholic Priests in that year. As is common in much of the world, church attendance in urban centers is lower than that in rural communities.

"A No vote is the only way... to protect a child's right to a mother and a father in laws relating to adoption, surrogacy, and donor-assisted human reproduction." —Tom Finegan

The Church's standing has come under serious attack in recent years, at least partially due to the scandalous revelations of priest pedophilia and child abuse cover-ups. The institution that was at the heart of the Irish state and community saw it's credibility quickly erode. Rural communities, where the Church still has it's most committed attendees, are more likely to vote No than urban centers like Dublin.

Photo courtesy of BELONGTO

The Youth Vote

The generational difference of opinion was also made clearest in a recent Ipsos survey that showed only 34 percent of those over 65 have indicated they'll be voting Yes. Meanwhile, 71 percent of 18 to 24 year olds say they're voting Yes—though that's also the demographic least likely to vote.

BeLonG To has utilized technology to build enthusiasm, producing a mobile-optimized WhatsApp-compatible site that includes a film, the ability to sign up for an SMS reminder to vote and to share that reminder with friends and family across multiple social media outlets.

"We know 100,000 new voters registered for this referendum," Barron told VICE. We suspect most of these were young people. We're now trying to mobilize them and get them to not only vote YES on Friday, but to also bring their family with them to the polling station. The youth vote is vitally important."

With tightening polls, voter turnout could be the decisive factor. Taxi services Hailo and Uber are both offering free rides to the polling stations via their apps, while the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) are using #votermotor to help connect students to a means of getting home in time to vote. A number of Irish universities and colleges have even rescheduled exams to encourage students to take part.

Tomorrow the polls will open and in the quiet of the polling booths there will be no more campaigning, op-eds or debates, just a simple Yes or No as marked by each individual citizen. Regardless of the outcome, it is statement of a revolution of values in the 20 years since decriminalization, almost 120 years to the day since Oscar Wilde was imprisoned by the state for his sexuality.

With votes scheduled to be counted on Saturday, the results will officially be in at 4 or 5 PM local time.

Follow David Gilmour on Twitter.

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