The Republic of Ireland is to go the ballot box today in a historic referendum on gay marriage. Irish men and women are to vote on broadening the scope of the institution to include gay and lesbian couples. While other countries have legalized gay marriage by simply legislating for it, Ireland's situation is different.
The Irish government is unable to legislate for gay marriage without first amending Bunreacht Na hÉireann, Ireland's constitution, and amending the Irish constitution cannot happen without the Irish people's express consent, which requires a referendum. As such, today's vote isn't actually on legalizing gay marriage per se; it's on changing the constitution and creating the conditions in which legislation can be drafted.
One of the consequences of Ireland's unique political and constitutional machinery is that referendums are commonplace, at least by international standards. Decisions in other countries that are taken by government are often enough given over to voters in Ireland. It was Irish people who legalized divorce, and it is Irish people who still refuse to legalize on demand abortion with five referendums held on the matter in the past 30 years.
An unfortunate side effect of Ireland's unique democracy is that it is often inadvertently divisive. Just as in previous referendums, Ireland is yet again divided along ideological lines with campaigning on both sides becoming increasingly acrimonious. The main argument from the yes side is straightforward enough; legalize marriage for all because it's fair. The no side, however, is more complex.
Some on the no side are voting no due to religious conscience. Others are voting no because they see the referendum as a means to copper-fasten recent legislation on gay adoption by changing the constitutional definition of the Irish family.
While it has long been legal for gay individuals to adopt children in Ireland, that hasn't been the case for gay couples; the argument goes that the recent change in the law, coupled with the constitutional referendum on gay marriage will not only legalize gay marriage and adoption from a constitutional point of view, it will also effectively place homosexual families on an even footing with heterosexual ones when it comes to matters like adoption and surrogacy. (Once changes are made to the Irish constitution it becomes practically impossible to repeal laws which have constitutional guarantees built into them.)
One other reason that people are voting no is simply because they're tired of the hypocrisy coming from the yes side.
Almost every imaginable slur has been cast against those who are thinking of voting no. The no side have been labelled as backwards, as bigots, and as bible-thumping ignoramuses. Their concerns, whether moored in religious conviction or constitutional legalities (or both) have been ignored in favour of shock tactics and insults. Yes proponents have screamed about tolerance yet at almost every opportunity have refused to honestly consider the rationales for voting no. They have demonized those on the no side to the point whereby many are now afraid to openly voice their intentions.
Opinion polls have shown the yes side winning in an absolute landslide; the reality, however, will be different. There's every possibility that those who vote yes will win the day, but it won't be the walkover that the polls are forecasting. At one point polls showed an incredible 80 percent approval for changing the constitution - a number that is almost laughably inaccurate.
While Ireland has undoubtedly changed during the past three decades, it hasn't changed as much as is often suggested in the media. Sure, the Catholic Church has lost a lot of influence in Ireland - but it still exists. People still go to mass there, and people are still cautiously conservative.
For proof of that all one has to do is look to the Irish political landscape, dominated as it is with centre-right politics. Irish politicians from ruling coalition party Fine Gael have expressed concern about a potentially sizeable silent no vote emanating from rural Ireland. Doorstep canvassers have experienced surprising levels of pushback from voters who, while fearful of expressing their views in public, are not afraid to tell politicians what they think.
What the polls actually show is that the yes side has been extremely effective not just in campaigning for change, but in stifling honest debate and bullying. And if there's one thing that Irish people cannot stand - it's a bully.
In some ways, the yes side has already lost. They've lost the ability to understand that what they're doing is unfair and they've lost goodwill among many Irish people. It remains to be seen just how many people they've alienated, but there's a strong likelihood that if the yes side lose this vote, they'll only have themselves to blame.
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