by Eoin O’Mahony
Late last week, a majority of citizens in Ireland voted to accept same-sex marriage. Many states in Europe and North America have legislated for same-sex marriage but Ireland’s citizens voted to amend the country’s constitution. 62% (or about 1.2 million people) of the poll voted Yes in a simple Yes/No choice. 38% of the voting public rejected the amendment. The constitution has been amended 35 times since 1937. The acceptance of a new clause in the constitution (Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex) represents a significant step forward for the realisation of social and political rights for people in Ireland. Much was made of returning migrants coming to Ireland to vote and that same-sex marriage was accepted by a popular vote. The international press was full of coverage of Ireland’s popular acclamation. That this amendment was concerned with same-sex marriage rights however is not insignificant.
The vote is the latest step in a long struggle for LGBT people in Ireland. The Irish state decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 after a delay and several cases taken by citizens in the European Court of Human Rights. This revised a pre-Independence statute outlawing sexual acts between men. Civil partnership was enacted in 2010 which allowed same sex couples to formalise relationships in the view of the law. An intensive campaign was run from this time to ensure full marriage rights for LGBT couples. This has meant a significant politicisation of these diverse communities in the years since 2010. The case for an acceptance of this full marriage right was founded on the constitutional definition of the family and the inability of same-sex couples to vindicate their property and health rights. Same-sex civil partners could be excluded from decisions about inheritance and who cared for any children of these relationships. In this way, same-sex marriage rights are an important way in which the state recognises the rights of many family forms already in existence. Beyond these provisions, there are many points of symbolism to this campaign. These points are understood when we look at the historical relationship between the Irish state and the Catholic Church.
The 1937 Constitution is a foundational document aimed at reinforcing the social and political power of a Catholic propertied class. It contains a number of articles, which reflect principles of Catholic social teaching and includes a provision whereby “the State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack” (Art. 41.3.1). Furthermore, the constitution recognises “the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law” (Art 41.1.1). At stake then in this particular constitutional amendment was not merely that marriage can be conducted regardless of sex but a cultural acceptance of other forms of family already in existence. The acceptance of this amendment by a majority of citizens is not a case of Ireland ‘finally getting the secular’. I will return to this later.
The amendment was a proposal for the acceptance of same-sex marriage rights endorsed by civil society groups, multinational companies and mainstream political parties of both left and right. Last year’s Dublin Pride parade had many floats sponsored by companies like Twitter and Hailo (both with significant operations in Ireland) and the companies publicly supported a Yes vote. At the same time, the main conservative parties avoided any backlash from Catholic members by outsourcing their campaigns to civil society groups such as Yes Equality. During the campaign, former and present cabinet members came out as gay men and a small number of prominent sports and media personalities lent support to Yes campaigns. Civil society was mobilised effectively to foreclose the possibility that reactionary Catholic lobby groups gained more legitimacy than they already had. An amorphous cadre of No campaigners argued that this would redefine marriage and that children would be left without both mothers and fathers because gay couples want to have children. If marriage is the foundation of society, these groups argued, to redefine it would damage society. There were no arguments made which invoked the anger of god. The real evidence of a changing society, which has altered its relationship to a hegemonic Roman Catholic Church, is in the secularised arguments deployed by the No side. Unable to ground their objections on the theological, these groups resorted to rhetoric concerned with the dangers of assisted human reproduction and anonymous sperm donors. Science running amok was far more dangerous than eternal damnation.
In addition to the muted concerns from the institutional Catholic Church, some of the mainline Protestant churches and a small number of Islamic leaders also expressed concern at the proposal. The largest of these groups, the Church of Ireland, effectively allowed a free vote amongst its members. Some of their bishops actively campaigned for a Yes vote. The main objection of these churches was that only a man and woman validly constitutes marriage. As it turns out, a minority of people listened to them and took their concerns seriously. Based on these ideas, we might speculate that Ireland is continuing its path toward an inevitable secular future. This would be misguided. From early in the day when the voting boxes were being tallied (unofficial, observed counts by the public), working class areas across Dublin and other urban areas were ignoring the concerns of the Roman Catholic Church and others and voted for marriage equality for their friends and family members. The response to the Yes campaign in wealthier areas was lukewarm according to campaigners. The change in Ireland since the near miss of the divorce referendum two decades ago is that the main Christian churches have failed to recognise a divide in material conditions in Ireland. This divide is evident in the private hospitals administered by trusts created by Catholic religious orders. It is hard wired within fee-paying schools supported by these same religious orders. It is grievously evident within the moribund compensation deal made with these orders by the Irish state following official reports outlining decades of institutional abuse.
In short, and in the words of one of Ireland’s best-known religious journalists Patsy McGarry, “the [RC] Church has lost the urban working class”. The institution in Ireland looks on in learned inertia as some of its own ordained men and professed women point out the clear inequalities in Irish society. Much has been made in past analyses of the figure of the mother in the peasant Irish household. But the women of Ireland, given special mention in the constitution, are no longer prepared to listen to an organisation that denies them bodily autonomy. If Ireland is becoming more secular, it is occurring in particular ways. There are, by now, abundant accounts in official reports on the paucity of maternity care in Ireland. Case after case has revealed medical and legal elites that cling to the practices of a carceral state. The material conditions within which this is occurring are clear in Ireland: trenchant economic inequality at work and employers that reinforce it through gendered working conditions. It is not simply that a strong religious faith is fading in Ireland. The overwhelming vote in favour of same-sex marriage in Ireland is the rejection of a large section of the population to overbearing personal scrutiny. If we want to call that secularisation we can but it is not the simple release from clerical authority.
Eoin O’Mahony holds a PhD. from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at 53degrees.wordpress.com and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.