Friday, July 10, 2015

The Marriage Referendum in Ireland

The editor of Annales Australasia, an Australian Catholic magazine, asked me to write a report on the same-sex marriage campaign and referendum in Ireland. I just received the issue with my article in the post. Here it is, for my blog readers:

On May 22 of this year, the voters of the Republic of Ireland decided that two people of the same sex could be legally married. In doing so, they made Ireland the first country in which same-sex marriage had been introduced by popular vote. The margin by which the referendum was carried was impressive: sixty-two per cent voted Yes. The result was obvious almost as soon as the ballot boxes were opened. Thousands of people took to the streets of Dublin to celebrate, a spectacle that was lovingly and approvingly relayed by the Irish media. Ireland was drenched in a wave of euphoria—or so it seemed from the reports. And in truth there were thousands of people wildly partying.

The fact that Ireland had once been considered, and by many was still considered, as a staunchly Catholic society was the main theme in virtually every international report of the referendum result.  In Ireland too, as the story broke, this was a favourite motif amongst the pundits. (And everybody, it seemed, was a pundit.) During the referendum campaign, supporters of same-sex marriage had downplayed the religious dimension, insisting that the referendum was about civil marriage rather than religious marriage, that many Catholics—even some Catholic priests!—were supporting the referendum, that nothing was more conservative or family-friendly than encouraging more people to get married, and so on. The instant the result was in the bag, however, the tune changed. All of a sudden, saying ‘Yes’ to gay marriage was not only a defiance of Catholic teaching on matrimony, but a complete and decisive break with Ireland’s Catholic past. And a good thing too!

Outside observers, whether in tones of joy or distress, asked the same question time and time again: How could this happen? How could the ‘land of saints and scholars’ become the first country to introduce homosexual marriage by popular vote?

In truth, the wonder was not that the referendum was passed but that it was not passed even more emphatically. Opinion polls at the beginning of the campaign put the ‘No’ vote at around seventeen per cent. One would have thought, from surveying the myriad of ‘Yes Equality’ badges, and of ‘Yes Equality’ signs in the windows of shops and private dwellings, that No voters were more of an endangered species than the Siberian tiger. Every political party in Ireland—from the major, established parties, to the micro-parties who regularly lose their deposit at every election—were backing a ‘Yes’ vote. The Irish media supported it en masse, aside from a handful of dissenting journalists. A whole host of Irish celebrities, from U2 to the Catholic country singer Daniel O’Donnell, queued up to promote the change. Even institutions one would have hoped would remain neutral—such as the Garda Representative Association, which is the trade union of Ireland’s police force, and the IDA, the State authority responsible for attracting inward investment to Ireland—were calling for a Yes vote. Businesses such as Twitter and Google—whose European headquarters are both in Dublin—showed no bashfulness in weighing in on a matter of Irish domestic politics, and joined in the chorus for same-sex marriage to be introduced. The American charity Atlantic Philanthropies pumped almost fifteen million dollars into pro-same-sex-marriage pressure groups in the years before the referendum.

And the Catholic Church? What role did the Catholic Church play, in a nation where a million people attend Mass weekly? The bishops of Ireland issued an excellent letter entitled The Meaning of Marriage in which the Catholic understanding of matrimony was very clearly explained, and in which the incoherence of ‘same-sex marriage’ was also very clearly explained. Aside from that, however, the hierarchy took a decidedly low-key approach.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, the second most senior bishop in the land, asked voters to ‘reflect’ before voting, but insisted that he was not going to tell others how to vote—“the days when bishops tell people how to vote is long since gone”. He seemed to spend more energy denouncing intemperate language in the No campaign than criticising the proposed constitutional change. Bishop of Derry Donald McKeown even said:  “I don’t doubt that there are many people who are practicing churchgoers of whatever church background who will in conscience vote Yes, and that’s entirely up them. I’m not going to say they’re wrong’.” And when one of our more outspoken bishops, Bishop Kevin Doran, questioned whether a same-sex couple could be ‘parents’ at all, his brother bishops showed no eagerness to rush to his defence in the ensuing controversy. (The only constituency that voted No in the entire country was Roscommon-Leitrim, which overlaps with Bishop Doran’s diocese of Elphin. Many commentators, on both the Yes and No side, made this observation. Whether it was more than a coincidence is hard to say.)

It’s not only the circumstances of the referendum campaign that make the result unsurprising. In a sense, Ireland has been a thoroughly liberalised country for two or three decades now. True, our abortion laws may remain comparatively restrictive (though abortion, in the case of possible suicide by the mother, was legalised by legislation last year), and the national broadcaster still broadcasts the Angelus bells twice a day. True, 84 per cent of Irish people listed themselves as Catholics in the 2011 census. But the most influential sections of Irish society—such as the media, academia, and the teaching profession—are not only enthusiastic supporters of the ‘liberal agenda’ in its entirety, but are even motivated by an unmistakeable anti-clericalism. This has been the case for at least twenty years, and a generation who have had these radicals as their tutors were honestly baffled as to why anyone would vote No.

There is something fanatical in the Irish character. In 1933, W.B. Yeats wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.

The reference to hatred shows Yeats in one of his ‘Hebrew prophet’ moments, but it is certainly true that the Irish tend to embrace causes with a kind of ferocity. St. Patrick recorded how eagerly the sons and daughters of Irish nobles embraced the new religion of Christianity, often becoming consecrated virgins, and Irish Christianity through the ages has been marked by an unusual level of ascetism and (arguably) puritanism. After the 1916 Rising against British rule, the entire country was gripped by a wave of nationalism so intense that Britain soon found Ireland ungovernable. Liberal secularism is now the religion of the Irish chattering (and blogging) classes, and Irish liberal secularism shows a virulence which has few parallels internationally. Even many commentators who were in favour of a Yes vote observed that the Yes campaign had all the bitterness of a holy war, and that opponents of the referendum were subjected to the most scorching abuse, especially online. There was some hope that this would backfire and lead to a No vote, but this did not happen.

The No campaign concentrated on the issue of children; specifically, a child’s need for a mother and father, and the claim that a Yes vote would mean that same-sex couples were, in the eyes of the Constitution, henceforth considered‘families’. This, they argued, meant that same-sex couples would have the constitutional right to adopt, and to ‘procreate’ through the use of surrogacy. ‘Yes’ campaigners insisted that this was a red herring, that family law could be legislated for separately, and that there was no solid evidence to suggest that a child did better with a mother and a father anyway. It was a complex argument, but it seemed to win votes for the No side. However, important as the issue of children is, this strategy did tend to evade the moral question of homosexuality itself. I saw one poster with the slogan: “Nature says No. God says No. Vote No.” Most opposition to the referendum was far more tactful than that. But tact failed in the end. I found myself wondering if the reliance on secular arguments had been a mistake, and if an unabashedly religious campaign would have been more effective.

What are the lessons for Australia, where a similar campaign looks to be imminent? For a start, Australian Catholics and Christians should urge, shame and pressure their church authorities to oppose the measure vigorously, and vocally, and speedily. Tens of thousands of Irish Catholics seem to have walked into the polling booth with the impression that there was no definite Catholic position on this subject. Aside from that, I think the Australian response will have to be based on the specifics of Australian society and Australian law. But I do suspect that, while using all secular arguments at your disposal, you should not make the Irish mistake of neglecting the simplicity and starkness of that slogan: “Nature says No. God says No. Vote No.”


  1. The Catholic Church's response to Ireland's referendum is disappointing. Here in the States USCCB issued a similar letter to the Catholics after SCOTUS ruled in favor. Too little too late. I have concluded the Church has grown lazy in its dealings with morality - they do not act with pace but are reactionary - showing like an absent father only when their kid gets into trouble at school, and that the Catholic culture amongst its laymen is broken. I will also say I am disappointed in Pope Francis. Not a word from him about either country.

    1. I understand that the bishops don't want to get sucked into the role of culture warriors, but they really need to speak up for important issues. The SCOTUS ruling makes the Irish debate seem small in comparison.