What does a same-sex marriage referendum mean for Ireland?

Voters in Ireland will go to the polls on May, 22 to decide whether to extend marriage rights to gay couples.


1. It seems, at least according to polls, that Ireland will say yes to the same-sex marriages. Is it somehow a surprise or would you say it was expected that people will say yes?

2. From your point of view, how will yes to same-sex marriages influence the Irish society?


John O’ Brennan, Lecturer, European Politics and Society, Director, Centre for the Study of Wider Europe, National University of Ireland Maynooth NUIM

I still believe the result of the referendum is in doubt. Most of the opinion polls continue to show strong support for the Yes side, to approve equal marriage. We should have learned, however, from the recent British election, that opinion polls can and do get things wrong. Sometimes spectacularly so! The Irish polls showed about 70 to 75 per cent support for marriage equality over the last year or so, but last weekend a flurry of polls demonstrated a significant drop in support for the Yes side. That is consistent with behaviour in previous referendums. Indeed in 1995 in the referendum on Divorce (which had been subject of a constitutional ban to that point) we saw a dramatic fall in support for the yes side in the final two weeks of the campaign. As it turned out the referendum passed, but only just, with 50.4 per cent of the vote. That was a big change from the 70 per cent plus support for Divorce which the polls had been showing over the previous two years. So, it appears that the marriage equality referendum may well be exhibiting a similar kind of trajectory for the Yes side. The danger for the yes side is that it will not be able to mobilize support on the day and that the referendum might thus fall.

It could be that many people asked for their view by pollsters for their view are not admitting to vote No, for fear that it would appear backward and out of tune with the times. We simply do not know. But at the least the trends in the polls are worrying for the Yes side.

Whatever happens the debate has been very interesting. Ireland is a markedly changed country now, even from the one that voted on Divorce in 1995. The Catholic Church has been very reticent to intervene, knowing that there might be a popular backlash if it took an outrightedly No position on the vote. In fact behind the nuance they are calling for a No vote but the language they are using is much more nuanced than ever before. Still, there have been many priests and nuns who have said they support Yes. Even they have done this from the altar at mass. This is a profound change from previous campaigns on social issues where the Church was instrumental in blocking every important piece of progressive legislation or constitutional change. It has been remarkable to witness the cross-over support for the referendum; a huge number of heterosexual people have been actively campaigning on behalf of their family members, friends, or simply because they believe in equality.

So, very difficult to predict a result. I hope it is a Yes vote but my fear is that it will be a narrow win for the No side (not many commentators are making that prediction but I am). If the referendum fails there will be a profound sense of loss amongst campaigners for equality. But nothing will change the fact that the campaign itself has both reflected and contributed to decisive social change in Ireland.

Lisa SmythLecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast

1.    I wouldn’t say it would be very surprising if the electorate votes in favour of same sex marriage. The model of heterosexual marriage, as it has existed in Irish law, has depended on ever more unstable gender norms. A series of political events since the 1980s and 1990s, especially the legalisation of contraception and divorce, as well as the transformation in married women’s legal status from that of property to individual citizen, all reflect wider changes in the legitimacy of gender inequality, particularly as it has been institutionalized through heterosexual marriage. In light of this recent history, it is also not surprising that women are more likely to support this same-sex marriage proposal than men, or that the public debate reflects the underlying politics of gendered families and gendered parenting.

2.     From my point of view, a yes vote to same-sex marriage will further the challenge to gender inequality in Irish society. The legitimacy of gendered family roles will be come under additional pressure as the principle of equality gains standing in the context of marriage and family life.

Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

1. First of all, particularly in the wake of the UK general election, I’d be a little bit wary about the polls just at the moment. I’m not yet sure that the referendum will be passed. The polls have very consistently shown a clear majority in favour of a Yes vote. However, there are three factors that could cause an upset.
a) First of all is turnout. ‘No’ supporters appear to me much more committed on this issue and are very likely to vote, whereas the intensity of commitment of ‘Yes’ supporters is not so strong. So if there is a low turnout, the No side could still spring a surprise.
b) A related issue is age. ‘No’ supporters tend to be older, ‘Yes’ supporters tend to be younger. At the same time, older people are more likely to vote, younger people less likely to vote. So again, that could erode the ‘Yes’ side’s lead.
c) A final issue is the ’embarrassment’ effect in polls. There is an argument that ‘No’ supporters are less likely to be honest when being polled because they feel that their stance is seen as “wrong”.

With that being said, am I surprised by the polls showing a lead for the ‘Yes’ side? No. Irish society has changed dramatically over the past 20 years or so. It has become much more liberal, much more tolerant, much more secular, and it is less conservative. And that is being reflected in the attitudes towards extending gay rights.

2. If there is a ‘Yes’ vote, I don’t think it will transform Irish society very much. For those in the LGBT community in Ireland who would like to get married, this step will be a huge benefit – and personally, I welcome it on those grounds. For the most deeply conservative voices on the ‘No’ side, their fears of an erosion of social order are to my mind utterly exaggerated and unrealistic. The effect of a ‘Yes’ outcome will be very similar to the decision to permit divorce (approved after a referendum in 1995): Once it became legal, people hardly noticed any difference. I would expect the same to be true in this case. I don’t think the status of marriage is undermined or twisted by the change; I think it is enhanced by putting an emphasis on marriage being a union based on mutual love. And I don’t think the status of children is damaged at all; again, I think it is enhanced by emphasising that children flourish best when raised in a loving, supportive home – and gay couples can provide just such a setting every bit as well as heterosexual couples – perhaps even better, because the decision to raise children has to be a much more conscious and deliberate choice for gay couples, whereas there is no such guarantee in the case of heterosexual couples.

David Farrell, Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, President, Political Studies Association of Ireland

1. I’m really not sure about the polls. The trend is towards no: it was 80% in favour a few months ago; some polls last weekend suggested it was closer to 60% in favour; who knows how much more opinion will shift in the final days. And what we don’t know is how many people may not be giving honest answers to the pollsters.

2. If it is passed then it would provide a strong indication of just how far we’ve traveled down the road towards a more modern, less church-dominated society.

Frank HägeLecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

1. In terms of the polls, it was always indicated that same-sex marriage was supported by the majority of Irish people. So in that respect, it was not a surprise. What is somewhat unusual is the clear distinction that many voters seem to draw between this issue and other moral policy questions, especially the question of abortion. At the moment, there is clearly no majority support for any substantial liberalisation of the very strict abortion ban. In many other countries, opinions about such issues are heavily correlated, but not in Ireland, it seems.

2. In practical terms, I don’t anticipate that it will make much of a difference to Irish society, at least in the short to medium term. If same-sex marriage is introduced, it will largely be a result of changes in Irish society and culture that have already taken place. However, in the long-term, it is probably another step to the ‘normalization’ and acceptance of non-traditional partnerships.

Maura Adshead, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

It is likely that Irish people will vote in favour of marriage equality: first because of the way that the debate has been framed – not as a ‘gay rights’ issue but as an equality issue that affects everyone; second because all political parties, most trade unions and most major NGOs are supporting the yes side; and third because it reflects a gradual shifting of Irish attitudes that began with decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 90s, and continued with the referendum permitting re-marriage after legal separation, and the introduction of civil partnership. A yes vote will not make big change in Irish society, it will reflect a gradual and growing shifting of attitudes that began in the mid 90s. More generally, however, the debate this referendum has engendered has been one of the most inclusive national conversations about civil rights, homosexuality and homophobia and the Irish people are probably better off for it. Despite some inevitable upsets on each side, for the most part the tenor of debate has been respectful and has galvanised a great deal of political mobilisation – especially amongst younger voters – which has been a positive antidote to the cynicism and feelings of disempowerment that followed our financial crisis.

Still, amidst all the political consensus for a yes vote, it is likely that there are many more silent no voters than the polls are showing. Most expect that the ‘ undecided’ in opinion polls are ‘soft no’ voters. The youth vote is less reliable than the older vote, which means that much of the yes support is also ‘soft’. We are expecting the outcome to be quite close and much depends on the turnout. The yes side is nervous. The no side is hopeful. We will all be holding our breath on Saturday when the votes are counted!



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