A key political finding of the Ipsos MRBI survey on changing attitudes and values in Ireland is that a clear majority of the electorate now favours the introduction of same-sex marriage. Resistance to change remains strongest among older people. Six years ago, fewer than a third of voters favoured same-sex marriages – 53 per cent today. Those opposed to change have almost halved. It has been a slow and difficult social awakening and the needs of these couples should be met.
The findings reflect a decline in the influence of church teaching. But the driving force for change has come from court challenges and campaigns in favour of civil rights following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. The Civil Registrations Act of 2004 specifically banned same-sex marriages, unintentionally providing impetus for legislative reform. After years of debate and political controversy, the Civil Partnership Act took effect last year. It extended tax and inheritance rights to same-sex couples similar, but not equal to, those in civil marriages.
The Government has asked the constitutional convention to report on the issue, something of a time-buying exercise like its response to other demands for reform. A recommendation may, however, cause political difficulties. A 2004 High Court ruling declared that marriage, as set in the Constitution, is between a man and a woman. Legislative change would require a referendum. But the appetite for such a potentially bruising campaign varies greatly between Fine Gael and Labour.
In this, as on other matters, public opinion appears to be in advance of political will. Issues referred to the constitutional convention, with the exception of a reduction in the voting age to 17 years, have attracted high levels of approval in this attitudes and values survey. Strong support was forthcoming for a comprehensive review of the 1937 Constitution, rather than piecemeal reform. That approach would present major political challenges, but offers the prospect of far-reaching modernisation.