A brief introduction to the marriage equality referendum

This article was written as a part of LGBT Week 2015 in honor or Ireland's marriage referendum. Find out more here.

By Chris Crockford (Editor)

In 2013 a constitutional convention was held in Ireland to discuss proposed amendments to the Irish constitution. One of the issues discussed was that of same-sex marriage. The proposal pertaining to that matter was a success and on May 22nd, two years after the convention was held, Ireland is set to vote on same-sex marriage. Specifically, the people of Ireland are being asked whether to amend the Irish constitution to state that:

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

To mark the occasion, It Ain’t Necessarily So are dedicating the week leading up to the referendum to marriage equality, and more generally, LGBT issues. Should the amendment pass, Ireland will become the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by popular vote. Some would argue that the rights of a minority should not be decided by the popular opinion of the majority, but Ireland has little choice. While countries such as England and Scotland were able to introduce equality without a referendum, Ireland cannot. The implied meaning of the Irish constitution as it presently stands is that marriage is contracted between a man and a woman - any changes to the Irish constitution must be agreed through referendum.

A few years ago, such a proposal would have had no chance of passing. The Republic of Ireland is often seen as a conservative Catholic country. While this is, to some degree, true, the issue is more complicated. Although religious diversity has historically been sparse in Ireland, times have changed. Membership of the European Union resulting in an increase of cultural and national diversity, and recent highly publicised church scandals, have weakened the church’s hold on the ‘morality’ of the Irish people. These changes have liberalised and diversified the values of the Irish people for the better.

In a country which only decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993, the introduction of marriage equality by popular vote would send a strong message. A message that Ireland has survived the suffocating dominance of Catholicism and has begun to thrive beyond it. It would send a message internationally that marriage equality is an inevitability and that religious affiliation need not determine your moral compass. But, more importantly, it would send a message to the gay people of Ireland that they are valued, and that their relationships deserve equal status to that of their heterosexual counterparts.


The Campaign

Numerous groups have come out on either side of the debate in recent months. All of the political parties in Ireland support the referendum, as do numerous companies (e.g., Google, LinkedIn), celebrities (e.g., Colin Farrel, Mrs Brown) and children’s charities (e.g., Barnardos, ISPCC). Organisations compaigning for a no vote are generally religious-orientated (e.g., the Iona Institute, the Catholic church – of course). Unfortuantely, the debate has largely centered around something completely separate to the referendum – children. Those campaigning for a no vote have been promulgating the phrase ‘every child deserves a mother and father’. Their argument – as you’ve likely gleaned - is that, should the referendum pass, children will be denied either a mother or father. That might not seem very logical and that’s because it isn’t.

This year, the Irish government passed legislation allowing for joint adoption by same-sex couple. Previous to the Children and Families Relationships Bill 2015, single gay individuals could adopt, but same-sex couples could not. The rights same-sex couples have to adopt will not change if the referendum passes or fails, but should it fail, the children of same-sex parents will not gain the constitutional protection of ‘family’. ‘No’ campaigners have also raised issues, and concerns,  regarding surrogacy and assisted human reproduction. The no campaign are playing a smart – if somewhat duplicituous - game, they are aware that people are less likely to support same-sex parenting over marriage, and are thus playing to people’s associated prejudices. As such, the ‘yes’ campaign have been on the defense, trying to convince people that the referendum will in no way impact adoption procedures for same-sex couples. Interestingly, the ‘no’ campaign’s misleading claims have been firmly contradicted by the government, the independent referendum commission, the Irish adoption authority and many, many legal experts. Additionally, all major childrens’ charities have come out in favour of the referendum. Yet the ‘no’ campaign’s scare tactics have, seemingly, successfully scored the matter into the minds of the public.



Referendums in Ireland have a history of being unpredictable. In May of 1995, a referendum for the state recognition of divorce had a support rate of 72%. However, heavy lobbying by the Catholic church, meant that 6 months later, the referendum passed by only 0.8% (1). Similalry, a referendum regarding the rights of children originally had support of 74% in October 2012, which dropped to 58% on polling day (3). With regards to the marriage equality referendum, opinion polls have consistently shown significant levels of support for the amendment. However, given Ireland’s history, many are worried that a ‘silent no’ majority might result in the amendments defeat (4). It remains to be seen whether such strong support materialses on voting day. 




Along with Facebook and Twitter, visit our Countdown to Fri-gay page everyday this week for new articles and join us as we countdown to the historic marriage equality referendum.  

(1) http://www.environ.ie/en/LocalGovernment/Voting/Referenda/PublicationsDocuments/FileDownLoad,1894,en.pdf

(2)   http://www.thejournal.ie/redc-poll-childrens-rights-referendum-642356-Oct2012/

(3)   http://www.thejournal.ie/childrens-referendum-result-2066605-Apr2015/

(4)   http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/silent-no-fears-of-shock-defeat-in-marriage-referendum-grow-31211350.html

Polling sources: