Marriage Referendum: Ireland sends a message of true equality and inclusiveness to the world

The campaign was conducted and won on a personal level, through thousands of individual conversations among Irish citizens, who were guided by an innate sense of decency and generosity


It may feel as if Ireland has changed in the last few days but it really hasn’t. It has shown its face. We have long known that we do not correspond to the parody of a deeply conservative, narrowly Catholic society. As Archbishop Dermot Martin stressed in the days before the marriage equality referendum, the time when bishops could instruct the Irish people on how to vote has long gone. What we may not have appreciated until now is that being a young, networked society has political consequences that can overturn the cynical conventional wisdom about voting behaviour, turnout and engagement.

This is the first Irish electoral event in which young people have taken the lead and determined the outcome and it has been a bracing, refreshing experience. It had been visible on the streets for weeks in the Yes badges that became ubiquitous during the campaign but it had its most potent and poignant expression in the multitude of young emigrants who came home to vote on Friday. Here, in a single gesture, was all the pathos of separation and longing; an expression of solidarity and belonging; and an enduring loyalty to the nation that had so signally failed them. The tweets from those returning to vote for marriage equality were at once inspiring and heartbreaking, testimony to our failure and their promise.

It has been an emotional time for Ireland’s gays and lesbians, many of whom wept when they voted on Friday, and again when the result came in on Saturday. After decades of exclusion, silence and shame, our LGBT citizens have received the most emphatic affirmation of acceptance from their heterosexual friends, neighbours and family. Much of the credit for this victory must go to Yes Equality, led with such skill and surefootedness by Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healy. But they stood on the shoulders of others who struggled in tougher times, heroic pioneers such as David Norris, Edmund Lynch and Kieran Rose. New voices emerged during this campaign too, including Una Mullally and Una Halligan, whose personal testimonies were so eloquent in making the case for equality.

Without the Labour Party, which has led with this issue and made it part of its coalition negotiations, this referendum would not have taken place. Other political parties played their part too, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny deserves credit for the leadership he has shown in embracing marriage equality with such enthusiasm. The No campaign conducted itself with dignity, for the most part, and the Iona Institute’s David Quinn was a model of grace in defeat. Some of the issues they raised during the campaign, such as regulating surrogacy, were not relevant to the referendum but they deserve serious, sensitive consideration none the less.

If young people were more engaged with this referendum than with others it was because they saw marriage equality as a civil rights issue rather than just another political choice. The campaign was conducted and won on a personal level, through thousands of individual conversations among Irish citizens, who were guided in the end by an innate sense of decency and generosity. On the face of it, nobody who is not gay will be affected by the introduction of same-sex marriage which, despite the claims of the No campaign, will do nothing to weaken the institution of marriage. But by voting for marriage equality, Ireland also voted for a more inclusive, generous society that recognises the complexity and diversity of its citizens.