Marriage Equality: continuity and change in Ireland after the referendum

The posters about the "Marriage Equality" are still in place here in the streets of Dublin, several days after the referendum of 22 May and the official announcement, during the following afternoon, that 62.07 percent of voters had chosen a change in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, in order to allow the "Same-sex marriage", the first case in the world of a country called to vote to allow such a change. The turnout was very high, 60 and a half percent, comparable to that in the historic referendum on the 1937 constitution (which recorded a 76 per cent of voters) and that of 1972 on the European Union (where the turnout reached 71 percent and whose vote led, a year later, the aggregation of the republic to the six founding countries of the EU).

Photo Aldo Ciummo

Among the peculiar things that could be seen in recent months were “yes” posters (calling for changing the article 41 of the constitution with the addition of the statement: "Marriage may be contracted secondo with law by two persons without distinction as to Their sex ") displayed on the windows of the sections of the Fianna Fáil party, panels next to the usual ones with the militaristic scenes of 1916 and 1920 and the republican constitution of 1937. Still in 1992, the then leader of Fianna Fáil, Albert Reynolds, did not even want to legalize relationships other than those traditionally accepted, even if the need for a pact with the Labour led his deputies to change their stance later. Last Sunday evening the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, interviewed by the public television RTE ONE, described the support to the "yes" vote as an extremely positive moment in the history of the Republic of Ireland. Joan Burton (Labour, in the cabinet with Fine Gael) underlined as well the sense of "unity in diversity" built over decades by the Irish democracy.

In 2015, however, both "Republican" parties, the old center-right with a social sensibility represented by Fianna Fáil and its historic "revolutionary" rival in less wealthy neighborhoods, Sinn Féin, supported the constitutional reform that was later adopted by people with their vote in schools, churches, and in the smaller islands of the west even in the living room of private homes. All the posters affixed by republican parties related to the history of independence recited "Yes Equality", but also those by Fine Gael ("Equality for everybody") and Labour, encouraged a change in continuity with images of Irish families and groups of citizens in the street. The four major parties (Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin) many independents and the leftist groups, have all supported since the beginning the campaign for a “yes” vote.

While the Labour party has followed up on its long established liberal agenda, the Fianna Fáil selected for itself the role of guardian of civil rights in the continuity, Sinn Féin aims to be perceived as the first driving force of change after its success in the European elections, civil society was decisive: ten days before the vote Brian O'Driscoll, well known in Ireland for his achievements on the rugby field, national team captain from 2003 to 2012 and family man, publicly supported the “yes” vote on Twitter and "Sister Stan" (Stanislaus Kennedy) a nun that is known in the republic for its social work having founded thirty years ago the charity "Focus Ireland", openly defined the marriage a civil right inalienable of all individuals.

But in an even more visible way, in Dublin many small business have exposed in their windows the slogan "Business for Equality" and "Yes to Equality". Fine Gael, a Center-right party currently in the cabinet with the Labour Party, in addition to supporting "same-sex marriage" had already drawn attention to the issue because of the outing of its Minister of Health, Leo Varadkar, always seen as a member of the political right wing often represented by Fine Gael. Prime Minister Enda Kenny (FG) emphasized the plural identity that has accompanied the history of Ireland, from the inclusion of different religious traditions to the integration of immigrants, while Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Féin) after the notification of the final result, has urged radical left groups (Socialist Party and People Before Profit) not to lose the impetus to social change and instead to transfer it in an alternative program of government along with Sinn Féin: her appeal builds on the massive contribution to the "yes" vote from "working class" areas.

The referendum campaign has dominated the debate for months and although the supporters of the "no" vote have sometimes resorted to images designed to suggest abrupt changes in family structure, generally they were not contrary to the principle of recognition to unions between persons of the same sex, but have raised legal issues (for example in the regulation of assisted procreation) conceivable according to the change of Article 41 of the constitution. On May 22nd, the Irish people also voted about another article of the constitution, the number 12, to get to the lowering of the minimum age of the President (from 35 to 21 years) proposal of which not much it has been said - given the prominence acquired by the other issue - reform rejected in this case (with 73 percent of votes against) by the Irish electorate.

However, while fears of negative repercussions for political parties that could be considered more conservative seem unmotivated, at least considering the elections of Carlow-Kilkenny where Fianna Fáil candidate Bobby Aylward was elected and Fine Gael was not performing bad (over the same week end when the referendum took place) there is no doubt that this referendum could have an impact on countries with strong ties to Ireland, as United States (where the next month there will be a judgment on the constitutionality of the refusal - by some states - to the introduction of civil unions) as well as in several European states, where many politicians are now beginning to question the assumption that civil society would be reluctant to accept reforms in the field of individual rights, when these may put in crisis social customs that were for long time unquestioned.

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