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Overwhelming Majority Votes to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in Ireland

The vote makes Ireland the world's first country to allow same-sex marriage by popular referendum.

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It wasn’t until 1993 that Ireland decriminalized homosexual acts. It wasn’t until 1995 that divorce arrived. Abortion remains illegal in the vast majority of cases. But this week, voters in Ireland cast their ballots by huge margins to legalize same-sex marriage, making the deeply Catholic nation the world’s first to legalize such unions by popular referendum.

With all the votes counted, 62.1 percent cast their ballots in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, with 37.9 percent voting against. Some 60.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the referendum, and the results are of a part with what has become a global movement to recognize equal rights for gays and lesbians. Gay marriage is currently legal in 19 other countries, and in 37 American states. To be sure, as gay rights have advanced in many countries, sexual minorities are finding themselves increasingly persecuted in other corners of the world. Many African states have begun more aggressively enforcing anti-gay laws, and legal rights of Russia’s LGBT-minority have come under pressure by the government of President Vladimir Putin.

That deeply divided global climate for gay rights illustrates the magnitude of the vote in Ireland, where 20 years ago a popular referendum approving same-sex marriage would have been unheard of. “We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world, of liberty and equality,” said Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s minister of health who came out as gay at the referendum-campaign’s start. “People from the LGBT community in Ireland are a minority. But with our parents, our families, our friends and co-workers and colleagues, we’re a majority.”

Gay rights campaigners saw the result as additional evidence of an international movement to codify gay rights in law. “Voters in Ireland had a rare opportunity to make their country and the world more just and more equal — and that’s just what they did. As these election results prove, momentum for equality reaches around the globe,” said Chad Griffin, president of the American gay rights group Human Rights campaign. “Love can’t wait, not in the United States or in Ireland, and it is clear it won’t wait any longer.”

The victory in Ireland for gay-rights campaigners comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hand down what could be a landmark ruling on whether the Constitution grants the right to same-sex marriage. That ruling could force reluctant states to recognize gay marriage, but during oral arguments in April the court appeared divided on the issue. Analysts expect Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is Catholic, will be the deciding vote on whether to further expand federal recognition of same-sex rights.

With its public credibility in tatters over revelations of child abuse, the Catholic Church kept a low-profile during the campaign. But the church was always going to be in the background of an issue such as same-sex marriage in such a deeply Catholic country. Some 84 percent of Ireland identifies as Catholic, but church attendance has been dropping in recent years.

“This is a social revolution,” the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told RTE Television. “The church has a huge task in front of it get its message across to young people … The church needs to do a reality check.”

“We tend to think of black and white but most of us live our lives in grey,” Martin added.

Advocates of same-sex marriage have described the campaign as a mostly generational struggle, with young people heavily supporting the referendum and older Irish citizens showing greater skepticism toward the measure. The yes campaign gained momentum in part through a series of public statements by prominent Irish citizens revealing their homosexuality. This shattering of decades-long silence by, for example, Ursula Halligan, a well-known TV journalist, appears to have helped mobilize yes voters and shifted the place of gay rights in the public consciousness.

“For me, there was no first kiss; no engagement party; no wedding,” Halligan wrote during the campaign. “And up until a short time ago no hope of any of these things. Now, at the age of 54, in a (hopefully) different Ireland, I wish I had broken out of my prison cell a long time ago. I feel a sense of loss and sadness for precious time spent wasted in fear and isolation.”

As their loss became apparent on Saturday, the no campaign appeared to concede that they had been on the wrong side of a long-running shift in Irish public opinion. “We would like to congratulate the yes side on winning such a handsome victory in the marriage referendum,” the Iona Institute, which helped run the no campaign, said in a statement. “They fought a very professional campaign that in truth began long before the official campaign started.”

Gay rights campaigners are of course jubilant at the results, a sentiment perhaps best summed up on Twitter by the Irish drag queen and activist Panti Bliss:

PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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