Ireland says Yes to Marriage equality, the Global Impact
The Vote Itself.
There are a number of questions and impacts arising out of the historic Yes vote in Ireland on May 22 . I want to look at the very issue of the vote itself. Many LGBT rights/civil rights campaigners are totally against the proposal of putting such rights to a popular vote. Reasons against voting include fears around running the risk of losing the vote, which is fair enough, the other is that many are against putting the granting or rights to a vote of the population, why should rights be at the discretion of others.
With regards to the fear of losing the vote, this is a real fear, as we have seen recently in other European jurisdictions. In Ireland the discussion has been on-going with broad political approval. In Ireland the time for the discussion had come, it was now. The vote now was not as risky as people might consider. Although all political parties were in favour of the proposal, the support for the move was often less that total with a number politicians not campaigning (especially those local/ municipal level politicians).
The issue of putting a rights issue to a vote is more contentious. There is the philosophical argument for/against, but in Ireland there was a practical reason which required us to have a vote. The Irish Constitution strongly protects the rights laid-down in it. As it stands Article 41 deals with concepts surrounding the Family. Legislation could have been brought in directly, however there would have been the very real potential for any legislation to be held-up in the courts as the constitutionality of such legislation is debated, relevant to the Irish Constitution. This scenario is quite likely as we have a long history in Ireland of challenging legislative provisions with respect to their constitutionality. The end result of legislation would have been months or years judicial wrangling.
The Nature of the Debate
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the 22 May vote was the campaign and how it essentially turned the usual rules of campaigning on its head.
The Religious/Catholic aspect: Although many reports from around the world show Ireland as a deeply Catholic country, the reality of the situation is that the Church no longer has anywhere near the moral “authority” it used to have. Also there is a more fundamental point. The generational understanding of religion has changed. In the post Vatican II Catholic world, the attitudes of ordinary Catholics has changed. Gone is the fire and brimstone, burning fires of Hell Catholicism. Modern Irish Catholics have a religion based on the basic principal of Love, love thy neighbour.
Yes there was a rejection of Catholic teaching by many who as a matter of basic attitude would vote against anything supported by the Church, but there were others who saw a Yes vote as the decent Christian thing to do, you’ll see why in a minute. It should be noted that although a number of bishops came out against the Vote, many stayed relatively silent. The Archbishop of Dublin was at pains to stress that his position was not anti-LGBT.
Another aspect of the religious question was that of the lay fundamentalist organisations. These people had to be met straight-on and dealt with objectively. Where they quoted the bible, there is always another Bible quote to support a yes position. So a lesson, before you deal with a fundamentalist, learn their position and make sure you have your counter argument. A rights advocate will never win against a fundamentalist because they will not be open to discussion and changing attitudes, what does work though is to meet their arguments with fundamental “love” . It would seem that quoting scripture passages back at them, not only annoys them but also throws them out of kilter.
The difference between a No voter and a fundamentalist: many who voted No did so for personal reasons with the greatest respect for all involved and while I might disagree with their position, I respect it. A fundamentalist NO, is somebody who just spouts out religious dogma and refuses to entertain discussion. These people are often also homophobic, despite what they say. One interesting aspect of the debate was that, people did not debate the pro’s and cons of being gay, acceptance of LGBT people was taken as a given and any talk against such people was unacceptable.
What is the topic? There was much discussion around family related subjects such as surrogacy and adoption and the supposedly negative effect same-sex marriage would have on the family through use of these avenues. Many saw the basic untit of a family as being mother, father and children, with many saying that the purpose of marriage is procreation and a marriage with out “natural procreation” between both parties is not a valid marriage. Needless to say such an argument not only insults LGBT voters, but also childless couples, single parents and any right-thinking person. Where topics, designed to be contentious were brought up, they were met with a common cry, of that’s not the issue, please go back on topic. Although associated with marriage, these topics were not exclusively subject to the discussion at hand. These are separate matters governed by separate legislation that would still be needed/in force regardless of the referendum vote.
Discussion rather than argument
Own the discussion: do not let fundamentalists get you down. Time and time again people had to take a moment and simply walk away, not presenting a fundamentalist with a platform, removes their ability to communicate. A perhaps extreme example of this is the folks in Westboro Baptist “church” – You cannot have a logical conversation with these people so don’t.
Respect: The high moral ground is a great place, we have it and should keep it. Denying fundamentalists the opportunity to spout their nonsense is a valuable asset. As a nation people stood and refused to listen to extreme language, and simply said, “We do not recognise what you are saying”. It should also be remembered that the vast majority of those who voted No are good and decent people, motivated to do so for personal or religious reasons. While certain Yes voters were voting so, purely (or as a bonus) against the Church (indeed some proposed No as an anti-government vote, but more on that later).
Objectivity: by the end of the campaign the No side were complaining that they were not being listened to and were being ignored by the Yes side and the “Establishment”. This was because when the campaign started out came all the wild statements about what the gays would do and how the institution of marriage would be destroyed for ever (not to mention all the other doomsday predictions, and some were actually doomsday predictions), rather than argue the point , the Yes advocates took an objective approach when a wild statement like 100% of gays do this or that, the response was “prove it”, “where is the evidence” “quote your sources”. When faced with objectivity many could not deal with it.
Love is the word:
Why vote Yes? Because it was the right thing to do, but why was it seen as the right thing to do? A key aspect of the discussion was why should same-sex marriages be allowed. The simple answer was “Equality”. As a result of living in a constitutional republic one of the cornerstones of the Yes position was that ALL CITIZENS ARE EQUAL, and so should be afforded the same rights and protections. The love of one individual for another is as valuable of one person as it is for everybody, regardless or sexual orientation.
As the campaign progressed and indeed never more so than in the last days, the discussion stopped being about the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage itself, but how we as a society wish to be treat each other in respect to this right or any other. For many it became a moral imperative not just to vote Yes, but to vote, period.
Not about spite: As I mentioned earlier, some people announced they would vote no, just to spite the government. Such a move spites nobody only your LGBT neighbour. In the Irish situation, Constitutional politics should be above party politics and so should not reflect our opinions of the government. This may seem theoretical, but when it could cost the referendum it is a very serious concern.
Keep it simple: Among all of the theory and theology the key was to keep it simple. Why vote Yes? To extend the definition of marriage, why? Because it is the right thing to do? Because we are a republic and all citizens are EQUAL, in this respect and all others.
Discussion not campaigning: One possibly unique aspect of this campaign was the discussion aspect. While the No side campaigned for their wanted outcome, the Yes side had a discussion with the voting public. While the No side told us why we should vote No and everything bad that would happen . The Yes side asked mother, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues is they would deny the happiness they have to their LGBT family members and friends. Why should you be able to marry the person you love and I not. This discussion appealed to the basic nature of the Irish spirit.
The big question
Ask one question get another answer. Although the question being voted on was simple in its wording, simply looking to extend marriage to all regardless of their sex, what happened was the country gave a greater answer. Although opinion polls gave possible results of up to 70% for Yes, very few believed them because in Ireland conservative no voters tend to either not declare in opinion polls or say they will vote, Yes. An example of this which hung over the heads of all, was the Divorce referendum, when an opinion poll 70% Yes vote turned into a 50.28% to 49.72 % win for Yes. This was a critical question because it shaped the final days of the vote. More and more the No voters were shouting on to deaf ears, so much so that they started to say they were being bullied and intimidated by the huge wall of yes supporters. One of the more pleasantly ironic aspects of the debate was when the no campaign started to campaign on the grounds of equality, they were entitled to be heard equally, how the wheel turns. Asking the question of family and friends made the question personal to everybody not just the LGBT community. Pretty soon, it became a moral question, not around whether two people of the same sex should marry (or raise children) but rather, what right does one person have to deny a basic freedom (to marry) or the chance to be happy to another. Many say this as a defining question of a generation. The debate had without people noticing, grown and changed in to a discussion about who we are as a people. Such was the nature of the discussion that many thousands of emigrants returned home from various parts of the world just to vote on that day (Under Irish law, your vote lapses if you are out of the country more than 18months and to use it you have to vote in person). In the six months before voting date over 100,000 people added themselves to the voting register (a sizeable number when you consider the total electorate is 3.2m). The Yes Equality badge became an iconic symbol worn by many.
People asked themselves how do we want to shape the country we live in. Phrases like “Republic of Equals” became popular, people were asked to “vote for Love”. One of the significant messages in the dying days of the campaign, was “bring the family out to vote”. BelongTo’s video for this has received international attention. The HomeToVote online campaign also should this. Essentially the appeal was to people to not only vote but also to ask how would you like to be treated, how would you like your family and friends to be treated. It came down to love and respect rather than pro or anti- gay attitudes.
Why such a shift, Why such compassion?
Age: Many observers have said that the scale of the Yes vote is down to the youth, the students, of the country coming out to vote and indeed returning to the country to vote in huge numbers. “If somebody can travel half way around the world to vote, I can walk down the road to do the same thing” . Yes the youth vote played an important part but so did the other demographics. Electoral districts known for their conservative voting patterns returned yes votes (sometimes barely) with only one of 43 electoral districts actually returning a No vote. The youth voted Yes, but also large numbers of older voters are voted the same way, as did people across the economic and political divides.
Different laws and ideas of constitutional settings. In Ireland we put the question to a popular vote by way of referendum in order to ensure there would be no Constitutional challenges to legislation. This may not work, or be needed everywhere, but it was here and it did work. In the few days since the referendum we see , how MPs in Australia are considering their position in relation to same-sex marriage legislation; a Presidential candidate in Taiwan has spoken on the need for action, the opposition in Germany is now asking for a referendum there also etc. The fact of the matter is that what happens in one country can affect and inspire others, all the better when the message is one of happiness.
Republic of equals: I am not sure how this plays out internationally but it shaped how we reacted in Ireland and how we celebrated the outcome of the vote. Many people voted yes because it was the only way to vote. As has been pointed out the LGBT community is by the nature of its numbers always going to be a majority, but when you took into account family friends, colleagues and strangers who all stood together with their LGBT fellow citizens, then you get a majority. People were happy to vote yes, because the discussion had become one of how we treat all citizens in our republic. By the end of the campaign we were not looking at how we deal with an LGBT issue but how we as a people saw ourselves as part of a constitutional democracy. Equality as a principle was a guiding one. What we ended up doing was giving an statement on how we saw ourselves as a nation. Situations in other countries are often different depending on the nature of the legal and social structures , the people of Ireland did not set out to make a global statement, but the statement made went around the world. The simple statement was, is, one that; all citizens are indeed equal. From our definition of equality come rights such as freedom – when we are all equal we are all free.
As important as the debate and vote were, the result and the response to the result were just as important. How the country reacted to the vote, made as much a statement as the vote. When the result was announced (and expected) those present in and around Dublin Castle started to sing the Irish National Anthem. The question and the answer may have started being one of LGBT rights, but ended with us looking to see who we are as a people.
If somebody, anybody elsewhere in the world is better-off in any way for this, then, win.