Ireland's Social Revolution: Traditionally Catholic Nation Makes History with Marriage Equality Vote

May 26, 2015


Gavin Boyd

policy and advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland.

In a historic victory for marriage equality, Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage via popular vote. By a 62-to-38 margin, the people of Ireland voted a resounding "yes" for equality in a national referendum on Friday. This signals what some are calling a "social revolution" in the traditionally conservative Catholic country. Ireland’s constitution will now be amended to say that two people can marry "without distinction as to their sex." The turnout was one of the highest in the country’s history and came after a robust civic campaign led by human rights activists, trade unions, celebrities and employers. Ireland’s referendum reflects a sea change in a country where homosexuality was decriminalized just two decades ago and where 70 percent of the population still identifies as Roman Catholic. We are joined from Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Gavin Boyd, the policy and advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: In a historic victory for marriage equality, Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage via popular vote. By a 62-to-38 margin, the people of Ireland voted a resounding "yes" for equality in a national referendum on Friday. This signals what some are calling a "social revolution" in the traditionally conservative Catholic country. Jubilant supporters crowded into the courtyard of Dublin Castle to watch as results trickled in from across the country. As the final tally was announced, they cheered with joy and sang the national anthem. This is "yes" voter Bear North.

BEAR NORTH: We now live in a different country that includes everybody. You know, homosexuality was only legalized in 1993. We’ve come such a long way, and now we’re proud to stand up to the world and say we’re a wonderful country.

AARON MATÉ: Ireland’s constitution will now be amended to say two people can marry, quote, "without distinction as to their sex." The turnout was one of the highest in the country’s history and came after a robust civic campaign led by activists, trade unions, celebrities and employers. It was also endorsed by all of Ireland’s political parties. On Saturday, Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny praised the outcome.

PRIME MINISTER ENDA KENNY: With today’s vote, we have disclosed who we are: a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people. Yes to inclusion, yes to generosity, yes to love, yes to equal marriage.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Ireland’s referendum reflects a sea change in a country where homosexuality was decriminalized just two decades ago, in 1993, and where 70 percent of the population still identifies as Roman Catholic. Many have suggested a series of clerical pedophile scandals have weakened the church’s moral authority on social issues. Ireland now joins 18 other nations that have ended marriage exclusion, including Britain, France and Spain, as well as South Africa, Brazil and Canada. Now, in western Europe, Northern Ireland remains the last country where same-sex couples are barred from tying the knot. Next month, activists will hold a rally in support of marriage equality there. So far, legislative attempts have been vetoed in the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Democratic Unionist Party and a majority of Ulster Unionists.

For more, we go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where we’re joined by Gavin Boyd, the policy and advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project.

Gavin, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you take us through how this happened?

GAVIN BOYD: Well, [inaudible]. This was a long campaign. This was about a social change that’s been happening in Ireland over the past 15 to 20 years. I think all credit has to go to the yes campaigners in getting this over the line. It really helps that there was a real consensus of support for the issue across all the political leaders in the republic. And I think it also helped that the Catholic Church, sensing the way that this was going, kept their heads pretty much close to the ground on this issue. I think that stopped it from becoming a very divisive issue in the republic.

AARON MATÉ: Gavin, what do you think accounts for that approach by the church, not taking a divisive "no" stance?

GAVIN BOYD: Well, I think the Catholic Church has been battered in Ireland over the past 20 years because of the abuses that took place for women who were housed in Magdalene laundries, for the child sex scandals that have come out from the church over the past 20 years. I think the church recognized that many people were not going to be taking lessons from them on what constitutes decency or dignity in society. So, I think they read the cards well in how to react to the public on that. But I think what really swung this in the end were those conversations that people were having in small townlands and villages in really rural Ireland. I think that’s really what swung it, because this wasn’t a victory for the metropolitan elite, this was a victory right the way across Ireland, not just in big cities, but in tiny little villages, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gavin, if you could explain the novel approach to organizing, or, I should say, the extremely comprehensive approach. I want to turn to a campaign video produced by the group Vote With Us that went viral.

BRIGHID WHYTE: Hello, I’m Brighid.

PADDY WHYTE: And I’m Paddy. We are voting for equal marriage. We hope you will vote with us.

BRIGHID WHYTE: We’re from Dundalk, we’re Roman Catholics, and we will be 50 years married this year. We wish other couples, gay or straight, could legally avail of civil marriage and have the opportunity to experience the love, protections and companionship that we have experienced.

PADDY WHYTE: Twenty years ago, I probably would have voted no. But now that I know gay people and see the love and joy they can bring to life, and I will be voting yes. We worked hard for civil rights in Northern Ireland in the ’60s. Now it is time to support civil rights in the South.

BRIGHID WHYTE: We’re grandparents, and we wish that all our grandchildren are protected and treated as equals, in the playground and in the eyes of the law.

PADDY WHYTE: I’d ask you to take time to consider and reflect on something. It could happen sometime in the future that your son or daughter, grandchild or great-grandchild will tell you they are gay. And when they ask you how you voted in this referendum, or whether you bothered to vote at all, what will you tell them? Will you tell them you tried to make a difference?

BRIGHID WHYTE: We have the opportunity to change things for the better. I know the ever-loving god that we believe in will say we did the right thing and the Christian thing in voting yes for marriage equality.

PADDY WHYTE: We ask you to vote with us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Brighid and Paddy Whyte from Dundalk, Ireland, in a video produced by the Vote With Us campaign. And so, if you could explain, Gavin, how the grassroots organizing was accomplished, both online, offline, house to house, and all the different groups that got involved? All of the parties supported this, the political parties.

GAVIN BOYD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this really was a mammoth campaign that was undertaken by "yes" campaigners. I think that video shows that it was very much an Irish solution to this issue. This was really about talking to families, talking to parents, talking to grandparents, and explaining to them why it was important for their children, for their grandchildren to be able to grow up in a society that respected them as equal citizens. I think those conversations that people had with their older family members, who are maybe traditionally disinclined from supporting LGBT issues or supporting marriage equality, once they saw how important it was for their children, for their grandchildren, they understood why they had to go out and vote yes for it.

I mean, online, as well, there was a massive campaign on getting the Irish diaspora, the immigrants who have left Ireland, to come home specifically to vote for this issue. And watching the tweets come in on Friday afternoon and the pictures and the videos of people coming in by plane and by ferry from the United States, from India, from Africa, from Australia, people came from all the way around the world to come home to vote on this particular issue. And I think that shows why it was such a strong grassroots campaign, because this was an issue that has electrified the youth of Ireland over the past number of years, especially those young people who have maybe gone to work in other more traditionally progressive parts of the world, and they come home and they realize that the changes that they see in other parts of the world are changes that they want to bring to Ireland, as well.

I think that it was a real—and it was the true essence of a grassroots campaign. This was not fought on TV with attack ads and all the [inaudible]. This was conversations that were happening in pubs in rural Ireland and at Gaelic football matches. So, it really was a victory for the populace as opposed to the elites.

AARON MATÉ: And, Gavin, you mentioned people coming in from around the world. What about the ripple effect globally? Do you see this influencing similar votes in other countries across the planet?

GAVIN BOYD: I would like to think so. I know that Eamon Gilmore, who really was the spearhead of the political side of the equal marriage campaign, has said that Ireland should now be a leader on LGBT rights around the world. And I think that’s probably true. I think that Ireland being a traditionally conservative, traditionally Catholic country, that is able to make this change through popular vote, I think it is an example for those parts of the world, particularly places in Latin America, particularly other places maybe in eastern Europe, certainly in Australia. I would see this having a massive ripple effect across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, former Irish government minister Pat Carey announced he is gay, and appealed to older voters to support same-sex marriage. He said he was encouraged to speak publicly after the health minister, Leo Varadkar, became the country’s first openly gay minister last month. Carey congratulated his compatriots for embracing marriage equality and said Ireland has progressed greatly in the last few decades.

PAT CAREY: I feel elated. I mean, I think it’s a brave statement by the Irish people that they have voted, in great numbers, to extend equality to gay and lesbian people, to allow them to get married civilly in a registry office. Ireland, 10, 20 years ago, was a strange, dark place where an awful lot of stones were being overturned and lots of nasty insects were being found under them. We decriminalized homosexuality in Ireland only in 1993. Ten years earlier, it was still OK for a man to rape his wife.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Irish government minister Pat Carey. If you could talk about those—the politicians who actually came out as they pushed people to support same-sex marriage?

GAVIN BOYD: Sure. I think—I mean, the political parties did play a really strong role in this. And the fact that there was such a strong consensus among the parties, I think, really helped solidify the sense that this was an achievable thing in Ireland. Obviously, the left-wing parties were straight-out in favor of it very strongly—Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Greens. They were all very much in favor of the change and of campaigning for the change. But I think the really significant change happened when the more mainstream parties got involved, when Fianna Fáil, the traditional party of government in Ireland, and Fine Gael, Enda Kenny’s political party, came on board with this. This really showed that this was not a left or right issue, this was not a liberal or conservative issue, but this was an Irish issue. This was about ensuring that all citizens of Ireland have access to the same civil rights as everyone else. And I think particularly Enda Kenny’s interventions were helpful, because Enda Kenny is an old-school Irish politician. He’s a devout Catholic. He’s from a rural community in the west coast of Ireland. And showing that someone from that totally non-Dublin, non-metropolitan background can get behind this issue, I think, really helped sway some of those more older, more conservative, more rural voters.

AARON MATÉ: And, Gavin, can you talk about Pope Francis? He certainly had a more inclusive stance than previous pontiffs. Can you talk about the position he has taken and how that might have influenced this outcome?

GAVIN BOYD: I think Pope Francis has probably taken quite a smart response on this. He’s certainly an intelligent man. He knows what way the wind is blowing on this issue. And he is loathe to, I think, put the Catholic Church at odds with so many of their Catholic congregants around the world. Remember, Ireland, although it has been rocked by controversies with the Catholic Church, is still a heavily mass-going country. People still regularly attend church. And I think that the church was wise, and Pope Francis particularly wise, in not seeking to not overtly antagonize members of his flock, I think, particularly understanding how young people feel about this. And remember, in Ireland, most young people go through 12 or 14 years of Catholic education, and after that, they still support marriage equality. So really this was about taking the skills that Irish Catholic children were taught in school and applying them to the civil politics around them. I think Pope Francis, if he is as intelligent as I believe, will look at the result coming from Ireland, will take, as the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said, a reality check, and recognize that the church needs to strongly consider how it articulates its views on these issues and how it can make itself more relevant to young people in Ireland and across the world today.

AMY GOODMAN: Gavin Boyd, finally, you are speaking to us from Belfast, from Northern Ireland. Talk about the position of Northern Ireland today and what you’re doing there.

GAVIN BOYD: Sure. Well, Northern Ireland is, I suppose, in quite a similar situation to some states in the U.S. at the minute, in that in other parts of the U.K. people can get lawfully married, but when they come home to Northern Ireland, they’re no longer recognized as married. They have their relationship reclassified against their will. That is what we consider an ongoing injustice, something that we think will probably be challenged in the courts at some point in the future. But really, at the minute, in Northern Ireland, there isn’t a legislative solution to marriage inequality here. The Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party are very strongly against marriage equality. The DUP have successfully vetoed its introduction four times now in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there’s every likelihood that they will continue to use their veto to block its implementation.

So, understanding the wave of support that there is for marriage equality across Ireland now, The Rainbow Project, that I work for, with our partners in Amnesty International and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions are organizing a rally and a march for marriage equality in Belfast on the 13th of June, really to make it clear to our politicians and those politicians in the DUP that they do not speak for all of us on this issue, that we understand that this is an issue of fundamental human rights and for equal treatment under the law, and that we cannot allow a position where people are lawfully married, but when they come home to Belfast or Derry or Newry, where they live, that they’re no longer considered married anymore. That’s a complete injustice, which really does need a resolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Gavin Boyd, for joining us, policy and advocacy manager at The Rainbow Project, speaking to us from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Dublin’s Catholic Archbishop Martin said last year, "Anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people is insulting God. They are not just homophobic," he said, "they are actually Godophobic because God loves every one of those people." This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to another Catholic country, but we go south to El Salvador, where this weekend 300,000 people turned out for the beatification of the slain archbishop of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero. Stay with us.

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