What’s at Stake in Ireland’s Same-Sex Marriage Referendum?

People pose for a selfie outside a Dublin bar that is supporting a Yes vote in Ireland’s May 22 same-sex marriage referendum. 

Photo by Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Ireland is due to hold the world’s first popular vote to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. The most recent opinion poll in the Irish Times indicated that 58 percent will vote in favor, with 25 percent against, and 17 percent undecided or not intending to vote. Leaving aside the last group, this would suggest that 70 percent will vote Yes.

Women, single people, and those living in urban areas were more likely to vote in favor, but the main division was along age lines. Only a third of those over 65 said they would vote Yes, compared with 70 percent of people under 34.

Opinion polls over the past few years indicate that the size of the Yes vote is declining, albeit slowly—among those who said they had decided, as many as 80 percent indicated they were voting Yes last December. The big questions, then, are to what extent there is a shy No vote and to what extent young people will turn up to vote.

The referendum is said to be about many things. The Yes proponents say that it is simply about giving gay and lesbian couples the same constitutional rights as heterosexual couples. Legislation passed in 2010 gave similar but not equal rights and responsibilities to gay and lesbian couples. A Yes vote will copper-fasten equal rights to all married couples regardless of sex.

The No campaign has emphasized that a Yes vote will change the definition of marriage and that it will have implications for adoption and surrogacy and that, in general, it will undermine family life.

In many respects the referendum is a litmus test as to what extent Ireland has become a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan society that approximates to the rest of the West, or to what extent it is a conservative, rural, Catholic society. The poll may be about rights, but it is also inevitably a test to decide if Irish people recognize and accept homosexuality and that two men, or two women, can love each other with the same intensity and passion as a heterosexual couple—and whether the state should bless their love.

At a deeper level, the referendum is about whether Irish people can accept that gay and lesbian couples have sex that is as pleasurable and fulfilling as it is for heterosexual couples and that, when homosexual couples have children, those children are not harmed by having two parents of the same gender.

The referendum is also about the extent to which the Catholic church still acts as the moral conscience of Irish society. Once upon a time, the church held a monopoly over what Irish people considered to be right and wrong and how to live a good life. The vast majority of Catholics, who formed the vast majority of the population in the Irish Republic, followed the rules and regulations of the church.

This changed dramatically during the latter half of the 20th century. It used to be that 90 percent of Catholics went to Mass once a week. Now it is about 35 percent.

Despite this falling off in attendance, the 2011 census showed that 84 percent of the population freely declared themselves to be Roman Catholics. But being Catholic is not what it used to be. It would seem that approximately a third could be classified as traditional, orthodox Catholics, the majority of whom are older and live in rural areas.

It would seem that the majority of Irish Catholics have become “cultural” Catholics, who see being Catholic as part of their heritage. They are quite willing to send their children to Catholic schools: 90 percent of primary schools are owned by the Catholic church.

Cultural Catholics are quite willing to have their children baptized, to participate in their first Holy Communions and confirmations, to get married, and be buried as Catholics. Being Catholic may not be a strong personal identity, but it is still often central to family and community life.

The question this Friday is to what extent this cultural identity embraces liberal, cosmopolitan attitudes to being gay.