Ireland's vote on gay marriage offers the possibility of renewal


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The Independent Online

Critics, including many of Ireland’s own leaders, find the Irish system of constitutional referenda on virtually any topic irksome, not least because the Irish people sometimes deliver the “wrong” verdict.

In the case of equal marriage for gay couples, the idea of a popular vote is an excellent one. For it means that an extremely controversial moment of progress cannot be blamed on the arrogance of some metropolitan elite. Rather, in what is still in many ways a conservative country, it will be the expressed will of the whole nation, after an open and tolerant debate. Ireland will be, and be seen to be, a more diverse, warm and progressive society, and moving in that direction after years of acute economic suffering.

This vote is symbolic of an Ireland trying to leave much of its past behind it, primarily the violence of the Troubles, of course, as well as the darker side of the Catholic Church’s influence, and the deeply damaging mistakes that led to the banking crisis and protracted, deep recession.

Indeed, as the fictional mammy-in-chief Mrs Brown points out in a gone-viral video message, the Troubles, which grew out of campaigns to secure civil rights, and the current debate contain plenty of linkages: “When I was a young girl there was a big hoo-ha about mixed marriages – Catholics marrying Protestants, black people marrying white people, but you know what? They still got married and the world didn’t end.”

The referendum debate raised issues that are familiar to British ears, not least a certain amount of scaremongering about the consequences of a change in the constitution, such as the notion that the clergy of various religious groups would be forced to undertake such ceremonies against their conscience. That would be a legitimate point, if true, but Ireland’s constitution – and its membership of the European Convention on Human Rights – makes nonsense of such claims.

If the referendum is passed, Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage through a popular vote; like the Prince Charles-Gerry Adams handshake, an unthinkable event even a few years ago.