The Yesses Have it: Why Ireland had a Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage

Brilliant news for anyone with any connection to Ireland whatsoever: the yesses have it! We now know that 62% of Irish voters support gay marriage, and gay marriage became legal in Western Europe’s most notoriously conservative nation. In the first ever national referendum on gay marriage, the Irish people did themselves proud and proved that Ireland is now a progressive and modern country.


Even the response of the ‘No’ camp has done Ireland proud. Where in the UK, the US and the vast majority of Europe, the no camps refused to accept defeat and continued to spout increasingly homophobic rhetoric, the Irish No camp congratulated their opponents. Even the Catholic Church in Ireland accepted the need for change, with the Archbishop of Dublin calling for modernisation within the church to re-connect with the Irish youth. More significantly, the Archbishop recognised the love between same sex couples, supported civil partnerships, said that the Church shouldn’t ‘go backwards’, and congratulated same sex couples on the result.


But why is Ireland the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through referendum? After all, same sex marriage is now legal throughout much of the Western world. The answer is simple: the constitution.


The Irish constitution has been around since 1937, written by the right wing DeValera. It gave the Church more power than other constitutions dared. Simultaneously, the constitution included a clause requiring all amendments go through a popular vote before ratification.


These are the two reasons the government opted to put the question to the people. It would theoretically have been possible for the Irish government to put a bill before the Dail on same sex marriage, but that bill could simply be overturned by another bill repealing it (or, potentially, the courts in the years that followed). And with the Catholic Church’s influence (especially in education), that wouldn’t be as unlikely as many may assume.


Equal rights hasn’t gone to popular vote in the rest of the world because constitutions haven’t required it to. Either constitutions haven’t been amended, or they have been without referendum. Simplistically, a referendum on equal rights is the very reason voting systems are complicated; in cases like this, the majority (of straight Catholic voters) were voting on an issue solely regarding the rights of a minority (of same sex couples) - had they voted no, the rights of the few would have been denied by a majority determined to retain their social power. Thankfully, the Irish people proved themselves to be better people than political theorists would have them.



The popular vote provides real equality in Ireland: now same sex couples are protected by the same constitutional rights as everyone else. A country that only decriminalised homosexuality two decades ago, and that was notoriously religious, conservative, and anecdotally behind the times now provides greater constitutional protection for equal rights than much of Europe, including (but limited to) the UK.