In a historic referendum, Ireland has become the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Of the nearly 2 million votes cast yesterday, 62 percent elected to amend the country’s constitution to provide full marriage rights to same-sex couples, a startling margin in the mostly Catholic country and one of the most resounding victories yet for marriage-equality advocates worldwide. Only 22 years have passed since Ireland decriminalized homosexuality, and today’s overwhelming result provides another milestone in the waning cultural and political influence of the country’s once-dominant Roman Catholic Church. Ireland becomes the 20th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, but the first to do so by popular mandate. The change will take effect later this summer, but the celebration has already started — even in Irish skies:
The referendum, which has been the center of attention in Ireland for months, drew one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation’s history, with more than 60 percent of eligible voters participating. All of the major Irish political parties were in favor of the amendment, as was most of the country’s business community. Many Irish expatriates had also returned home to cast their votes, a journey some have chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #hometovote:
Ireland has historically been one of the most socially conservative countries in Europe, and until the last few decades the Roman Catholic Church had been the most powerful force in Irish politics. As an example, divorce was only legalized in the country in 1995, and by nowhere near the kind of margins seen today. As The Atlantic’s Mo Moulton explains, Ireland’s liberal transformation began in the 1970s when another referendum significantly reduced the Church’s official power in state affairs. He adds that the subsequent social change hasn’t just been a demographic shift away from older, more conservative voters, but a profound reorientation across all parts of Irish society:
Irish liberalization—with regard to homosexuality as well as divorce, contraception, and abortion, which have all seen significant legal reform if not outright legalization—has come about not through a gradual replacement of older conservative generations, but because huge numbers of people have simply changed their minds, according to the sociologist Pat Lyons’s careful sifting of opinion polls. In the case of gay marriage, I believe they are changing their minds, not necessarily about the importance of family to Irish life, but about the definition of family.
This is possible in part because the source of the constitution’s vision of family, the Catholic Church, has suffered a near-collapse in prestige and authority, particularly because of revelations about the sexual abuse of children that was covered up by the church hierarchy. Government inquiries into this pattern of abuse and denial, such as the Ferns and Cloyne reports, became household names, symbols of the shattering of the Church’s reputation in Ireland. The Irish overwhelmingly still believe in God, but they’ve lost their faith in the Catholic Church: While 51 percent had great confidence in the institution in 1981, only 19 percent did in 2008.
Furthermore, even Ireland’s northern rural communities came out in favor of same-sex marriage yesterday. In fact, only one constituency in the entire country voted “No”:
Now mega-Catholic Italy is the only country in Western Europe without same-sex marriage rights, but activists are already suggesting that Ireland’s “Yes” vote will have a dramatic, positive impact on marriage-equality efforts worldwide, particularly now that it has been shown that there is a viable, popular-vote path beyond court decisions or new legislation.