A yes campaign poster in Dublin. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Ireland make history and vote for same sex marriage?

This referendum has brought a clear dichotomy in Irish society into sharp focus: the divide between traditional Catholicism and a more progressive, global outlook.

There’s now a mural of two women embracing on the side of a fifteenth-century castle in the Irish countryside. The man responsible, artist and secondary school teacher Joe Caslin, passionately supports a yes vote in Ireland’s upcoming referendum on equal marriage.

Ireland is set to make history this Friday as the first country to put the issue of same sex marriage to its citizens in a national popular vote. For young Irish people in particular – like the teenagers that Caslin himself teaches – the stakes are extremely high.

“The language that’s being used around this referendum can be quite horrific at times and there’s little empathy given to young gay men or women that are maybe on the cusp of coming out; that this is their lives,” Caslin told me last month when another of his murals appeared in Dublin city centre.

The Irish government’s proposal is superficially straightforward: to add a sentence to the constitution that will allow for same sex marriages. A previous court ruling means that, without this change, any marriage equality bill proposed by government could be open to constitutional challenge.

Over the past few months, the battle between the yes and no camps has been fierce, intensified by strict media regulations. Irish people have grown weary of the topic, subjected to an endless cycle of televised debates and newspaper columnists pushing for both sides. You can only imagine how difficult it must be to be gay in Ireland right now, watching as the country holds a nationwide discussion over whether you should have access to marriage, or simply be “grateful” for the existing civil partnerships.

The yes side – which includes all the major political parties – has been accused of “arrogance”, while the no campaign has controversially focused on adoption and surrogacy, issues that are not directly related to the referendum question (gay couples can already adopt and surrogacy is yet to be regulated in the country).

Many of Ireland’s potential yes voters – the younger generation – are now “economic exiles” who will not be able to participate in a decision that will have a massive impact on thousands of lives. Only those living outside the country for less than 18 months are eligible to vote and they must do so in person. As someone who has lived in the UK for a number of years, I know how hard it is not to have a vote on an issue of such national importance.

What has been heartening, though, is witnessing how the topic has engaged young people – both at home and abroad. Campaigns such as “Get the Boat 2 Vote” aim to encourage Irish people overseas who can vote to travel home to do so. From the diaspora, from Australia to Abu Dhabi, emigrants are urging those back home to use their vote as part of the #UseYourVote and #BeMyYes social media campaigns.

At home, some 28,000 student voters have been directly registered by the Union of Students in Ireland, which ran a nationwide sign-up campaign last year ahead of the referendum. Almost 66,000 new voters have been added to the supplementary register, many of whom will be young people voting for the first time.

Yet despite this drive, and the strength of umbrella group “Yes Equality”, Friday’s outcome is far from certain. Although the majority of last weekend’s polls gave the yes vote a clear lead, it will still be a nervous wait for both sides.

This referendum has brought a clear dichotomy in Irish society into sharp focus: the divide between traditional Catholicism and a more progressive, global outlook. But recent decades have seen rapid change – the motion to legalise divorce passed by just 0.6 per cent in 1996, and homosexuality remained illegal until 1993.

Last Sunday, the Catholic church upped the ante, with bishops’ letters advocating a no vote read out in parishes across the country. A poll carried out by Millward Brown for the Irish Independent gave yes a 53 per cent lead with no on 24 and “don’t knows” on 23 per cent. Convert those “don’t knows” into negatives and the gap looks very tight indeed.

Whatever happens on Friday, attitudes in Ireland are undoubtedly changing. This very public debate, which has forced people to come forward with their own personal stories, has only helped them to change further. Now the country is in a position where a yes to same sex marriage is a distinct possibility by the weekend. All we need to do now is wait.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”