Ireland set to cast off anti-gay prejudice

2015-01-27 14:01
(Punit Paranjpe, AFP)

(Punit Paranjpe, AFP)

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Dublin - Ireland is set to vote on a referendum to allow same sex marriages, with the vast majority in favour of allowing the once controversial move to be passed into law in the conservative country.

It looks as if Ireland is ready to ditch its last remnants of anti-gay prejudice with the country's first government minister coming out as gay and polls showing 76% support for a May referendum to amend the constitution to allow same-sex marriages.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar's announcement that he was gay on 18 January came hot on the heels of an opinion poll showing that 81% of women and 72% of men supported marriage for same-sex couples in the predominantly Catholic country.

The poll commissioned by national broadcaster RTE for the Radio 1 Today programme was evidence of "the enormous repository of goodwill amongst voters in Ireland towards full equality for same sex couples," according to Director of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties Mark Kelly.

The minister for health has felt that goodwill with people being "nice and supportive" in response to his announcement. Although the most senior of political figures to have come out, Varadkhar joins governing Fine Gael member of parliament Jerry Buttimer who made public his sexuality in 2012.

Labour Members of Parliament John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan were openly gay before becoming members of the Irish parliament, the Dail.

Even more indicative of the cultural change in climate is the coming out of Gaelic Athletic Association star, Donal Og Cusack, who made his name in the national game of hurling, perceived as very much a he-man sport.

"Coming out in Ireland is still a significant, political act because of our cultural background and heritage," says Grainne Healy, Chairwoman of Marriage Equality, an organisation campaigning for marriage parity for same sex couples in Ireland.

"It is significant especially for young people to see the minister coming out and to know that they are living in a country where we can expect to be treated equally."

"For rights groups, the hope is that eventually it will be unremarkable that a minister is gay."

Still conservative

Ireland may have come some way towards this goal, but remains conservative with regard to abortion which is only permitted if it is to save the mother's life.

Healy feels the lack of visibility of women who have had abortions in Ireland is the reason why change has been more rapid in gay rights than in abortion rights.

"Visibility is very important," she says. The foundations for the change in attitudes towards gay rights were laid in the 1980s.

In February 1980, Joni Crone became the first open lesbian to appear on the RTE television's hugely influential chat show The Late Late Show.

Then there was the highly-prominent campaign of Senator David Norris who won his case against Ireland's criminalising of homosexual acts at the European Court of Human Rights in 1988.

Legislation decriminalising homosexuality was enacted in 1994.

"Irish society was opening up and the media were extremely influential in that process," Healy says.

Progressive moves

Another factor in changing social mores in Ireland is that the Catholic Church's influence on private morality, traditionally very strong, was undermined by successive reports into child abuse and the church's cover-up of that abuse.

There was very little opposition to the 2010 civil partnership bill which was passed unanimously in the Dail, Healy points out.

"We have moved very quickly from civil partnerships to full marriage equality, which the wording of the amendment to the constitution guarantees."

All the major rights groups have welcomed the wording of the new amendment to the constitution which states, "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex."

Despite the broad-based agreement on same-sex marriage, referendum campaigns are notoriously hard-fought in Ireland.

A great deal of robust argument is expected with regard to the protection of the traditional family in a country where socially-conservative Catholicism is not quite a spent force yet.

Read more on:    ireland  |  gay rights

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