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Overwhelming yes vote brings same-sex marriage to Ireland

26 May 2015


Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

SAME-SEX couples are likely to be able to marry in the Irish Republic as soon as the autumn, after the government pledged to fast-track the enabling legislation following last weekend's landslide vote in favour of the measure.

On Saturday the Republic became the first nation in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Voter turn-out, at 60.5 per cent, was among the highest ever in a referendum since the founding of the State, much of it attributed to young people, who travelled home from as far away as Thailand, Australia, Africa, and the US specifically to exercise their franchise. Social media is thought to have played a key part in getting out the vote.

All but one of the 43 constituencies in the Republic voted strongly in favour of the measure to insert into the Constitution the clause: "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex." In a two-to-one affirmation nationwide (62 to 38 per cent), only the western Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency bucked the trend, and that by only two per cent.

The result also demonstrated that on social and moral issues, the traditional urban-rural divide, so obvious in past referendums on issues such as divorce and abortion, has disappeared. As has the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy, whose bishops had been a strong force in the no campaign. Absent, also, was the bitterness between opposing sides in the debate, although some no voters claimed to have been intimidated into silence by the influence of the yes campaign.

Despite warnings from the Roman Catholic Church of possible legal implications for those who might refuse to solemnise a same-sex marriage on grounds of faith or conscience, the Oireachtas (legislative body) has promised that legislation will ensure no one is not obliged to do so.

Senator David Norris, a prominent campaigner for the amendment, said: "There's been such utter rubbish spouted. No Catholic priest is going to be forced to marry gay people - although it wouldn't kill them to give a couple a blessing. They're happy to bless bombs, pets, agricultural implements. You'd think a blessing for two people who love each other would be easier than blessing a couple of goldfish."

Reacting to the result, the RC Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, said that the Church must ask itself whether it had alienated young people.

"I think really that the Church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board - to look at the things it's doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say: 'Look, have we drifted away from young people?'"

He said that he appreciated how gay men and women felt. The vote reflected a social revolution that the Church had perhaps not understood. "It's very clear that, if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue but in general."

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, attended the official announcement of the ballot on Saturday in the grounds of Dublin Castle, where 2000 people had gathered to celebrate the result. He echoed Dr Martin's call for a reality check, and said it prompted a debate on family in the "new civic space" that had been created.

He spoke of "the discussion which will now have to be held, as a matter of some urgency, with honesty, integrity, respect, and compassion around what constitutes family. . .

"The urgency of this conversation has been heralded already by politicians who facilitated the discourse preceding the referendum. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge to all Churches. It also chimes with the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, which speak into the situation of all of us, that the Church now has to engage in a reality check."

An official statement from the Church of Ireland indicated that the referendum result would not change its practice. "The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of Ireland wish to affirm that the people of the Republic of Ireland, in deciding by referendum to alter the state's legal definition of marriage, have, of course, acted fully within their rights.

"The Church of Ireland, however, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and the result of this referendum does not alter this.

"The Church has often existed, in history, with different views from those adopted by the state, and has sought to live with both conviction and good relationships with the civil authorities and communities in which it is set.

"Marriage services taking place in a Church of Ireland church, or conducted by a minister of the Church of Ireland may, in compliance with church teaching, liturgy and canon law, continue to celebrate only marriage between a man and a woman.

"We would now sincerely urge a spirit of public generosity, both from those for whom the result of the referendum represents triumph, and from those for whom it signifies disaster."

Despite this statement, the C of I House of Bishops is known to be divided. Two bishops, both from the Republic, have come out strongly in favour of same-sex marriage: the Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, and the Bishop of Cashel, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows. All of the Northern bishops are either opposed to the measure or have not made their views known.

Dr Richard O'Leary, of Faith in Marriage Equality and Changing Attitude Ireland, the pro-gay Anglican lobby group, said: "As people of faith, we are delighted that so many other people of faith have voted yes to embrace their gay and lesbian fellow citizens. We would like to thank those prominent lay people of faith, the individual priests and nuns, and the two Church of Ireland bishops who declared publicly for yes, and so encouraged others to do likewise.

"Faith in Marriage Equality would also like to again reassure those people of faith who voted no that this vote for yes will not impact negatively on their lives and we hope that they too will eventually be reconciled to this positive social change."

Dr Richard O'Leary went on: "We hope that the Catholic Bishops and Protestant Church leaders in Northern Ireland will notice how many ordinary people of faith in the Republic of Ireland have voted yes, and that they, too, might be encouraged to support the extension of civil marriage equality to same sex couples in Northern Ireland."

The Northern Ireland Assembly dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party has so far blocked attempts by Nationalist Sinn Féin to introduce similar legislation in the Province on four occasions. DUP MLA Paul Givan is seeking to bring forward a so-called conscience clause that would allow businesses to refuse to provide services they believed could compromise their religious beliefs.

The Irish government must now tackle the implications of the new amendment to the constitution, not least a form of wording to deal with civil solemnisers, and the matter of surrogacy, currently unregulated, which may come before the courts should a same-sex couple assert such a right.

The government is also looking at the judgment given in the Ashers' Bakery case in the North (News, 22 May). It is understood that a printing company, Beulah, in Drogheda, may face a civil action for alleged discrimination in the Republic's courts for declining to print wedding invitations for a gay couple.

As the new reality in Ireland dawns, another referendum has been flagged by Dr James Reilly, a former health Minister and now Minister for Children, who is calling for a change in the country's highly restrictive abortion law to allow for the procedure in the case of foetal abnormalities and possibly in cases of rape or incest.

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