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Why Ireland’s ‘Yes’ Vote Matters So Much

Supporters of same-sex marriage react outside Dublin Castle on Saturday to the announcement of the referendum's result. (scrolleditorial / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Roisin Davis
Róisín Davis is a literary agent, writer, and editor based in New…
Roisin Davis

Until very recently Ireland was, as the saying goes,”a nation run by men in dresses” (cassocks).

Perhaps this is why the image of someone in a dress — a form-fitting rose-pink dress — was one of the most captivating to come out of Dublin on Saturday: drag queen Panti Bliss (real name Rory O’Neill) addressing a cheering crowd shortly after it became known that the nation would be the first to legalize same-sex marriage through a popular vote.

Not only was the measure approved, it was approved in all but one of the nation’s 43 parliamentary constituencies, and by almost two-thirds of voters (62.1 percent). Thousands of expatriate Irish had returned to their homeland from across the globe to vote. The sweeping victory and the campaign that preceded it had elevated to heroic status LGBT champions such as Sen. David Norris, the first openly gay person to hold office in Ireland.

Ireland has accomplished what seemed unthinkable. It is a land that the sexual revolution almost forgot, where the sale of condoms was illegal until 1980, where divorce was prohibited until 1995 and where homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1993.

In large part because of the near-synthesis of church and state, sexual shame has been ingrained at every level. Ireland’s so-called moral problems—its pregnant teenagers, its single mothers, its gays and lesbians—had fled in large numbers to former colonial power Britain and elsewhere. Indeed, emigration, which has plagued Ireland since the great famine of the 19th century, has historically been driven not only by economic poverty but poverty of choice.

Now, more than any other social or economic change, it is Ireland’s sexual rights revolution which is transforming it into a modern secular nation.

An Ireland at the vanguard of marriage equality may be able to relinquish its status as a papal backwater that closed its doors to abortion and sexual nonconformity. Saturday’s vote brings with it the potential to extend equality to many aspects of life, in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But there is a long way to go.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident then when it comes to gender equality and women’s rights. Economically, Irish women continue to earn 12.6% less than men and are 18% more likely to work part-time. EU research which shows that a closing of the employment gender gap could increase the GDP of EU Member States by an average of 27%, would do so by a whopping 35% in Ireland.

Despite the nation’s massive pro-choice movement, abortion remains illegal on the island. It’s another “moral problem” that tends to be exported to Britain, to which more than 7,000 Irish women travel each year to undergo the procedure. Ireland’s archaic stance on reproductive rights flies in the face of its many claims to equality. The old ways have persisted despite enormous pressure from entities such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights.

The restriction of abortion is arguably the ultimate bulwark of Catholic Ireland’s moral conscience. But thanks to the fact that Ireland now has the European Union’s youngest population, and because of pedophilia scandals among the Irish clergy, the church’s influence is crumbling.

However, one need only cross the border to find the forces of religious backwardness in full swing. Composed mainly of evangelical Christian instead of Roman Catholic elements, Northern Ireland’s main governing party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has taken a regressive stance on LGBT equality akin to that of the tea party in the United States.

Now that Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” are over, homophobia seems to be the new sectarianism. “You don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship,” Northern Ireland’s health minister, Jim Wells, said recently before he resigned. “That child is far more likely to be abused and neglected.” This was not the first time a DUP politician drew a parallel between homosexuality and child abuse. In 2008, speaking on community concerns over sex offenders, former DUP Member of Parliament Iris Robinson said, “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”

Despite a recent legal victory for gays and lesbians in which a cake shop was found to have discriminated against a gay customer on the basis of so-called religious freedom, Northern Ireland is the worst place in the United Kingdom (if not in all of Western Europe) to be gay.

With Saturday’s vote in the Republic of Ireland, equality for Northern Ireland’s LGBT community now seem less impossible. Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast, the island’s second-largest city, is taking momentum from Dublin’s 75 percent “yes” vote, with huge marriage equality rallies planned over the coming weeks.

Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage represents a decisive break with the past. There is much more to be done before the nation can make wider claims to equality, but the long-time-coming sexual rights revolution is finally changing the landscape of Catholic morality.

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