There is a truism that Ireland is a country that leapt from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century while skipping the twentieth entirely. With the upcoming referendum to vote on alterations to the Irish constitution this Friday, 22nd May, we may find out if it is actually true. The vote is on Marriage Equality and if the majority vote is ‘Yes’ then Ireland will be the first country to consent to the marriage of homosexuals by popular vote, rather than a by change in legislation.
This would be the 34th Amendment to the Irish constitution and Irish citizens will also have a say on the 35th Amendment on May 22nd, too. That amendment is whether the age that one can be eligible to be Irish president can be lowered to 21; it is currently 35.
But the hot potato issue is gay marriage. Civil partnership already exists in Ireland, but civil marriage is not the same as civil partnership. Heterosexuals cannot have a civil partnership, they can only marry. So there is a sort of legal apartheid with regard gay and straight couples. As one punster quips, “”Why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to be as unhappy as normal married couples?”
It’s been a campaign where the ‘No’ supporters have brought up surrogacy and that children shouldn’t be deprived of a mammy and a daddy. Bishops have sent letters read from pulpits urging parishioners to vote ‘no’ on 22nd May. The ‘Yes’ campaign has had rainbow rallies up and down the country. We have been offered cupcakes with ‘Yes’ piped on them in Carrick on Shannon, in Leitrim, one of the most sparsely populated counties in the Republic.
This leads me on to think that while I only see ‘no’ posters in my village, you see more ‘yes’ posters in the towns and cities of Ireland. This issue may not only be about confirming that Ireland skipped the 20th century. It may also be confirming the urbanisation of the country.
Not that country folk will all vote ‘no’ on the day. Former President Mary McAleese has a country retreat in north Country Roscommon, not far from Carrick on Shannon. One of the great revelations of the ‘Yes’ campaign was her publicly announcing her support for ‘Yes’ on 22nd May. Shortly after, her son ‘came out’ publicly as gay.
In one of the more surreal aspects of this campaign Brendan O’Carroll, the comedian whose alter ego is the popular Dublin gadfly, Mrs. Brown, has posted a video ad for ‘Yes’, also featuring ‘her’ gay son. In a campaign where the ‘No’ supporters have firmly attached themselves to family values, these two examples point out that gay people also have families. And Irish families do love a good, big wedding.
Polls in newspapers seem to show a slim margin towards ‘yes’ winning on the day. But these media polls may not include people who are actually on the electoral register and will go to the polling station. In Northern Ireland, MLAs voted ‘no’ to gay marriage in the Northern Ireland Assembly by a narrow margin recently.
Who knows what will happen on the day? But the upshot will say more about Ireland than their opinion about marriage equality. The campaign in the run up to the referendum vote has already highlighted the chaffing in contemporary Irish culture between town and country, young and old, the influence of the Catholic church and secularism,the 19th century and the 21st century.