It is official: the people of Ireland have voted for same sex marriage. It’s created a level of excitement I have witnessed only once before – when we reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup. But this is a far greater triumph than that ever was.
I remember that day in much the same way as I expect Irish children will look back on this weekend. People cheering, laughing and beeping horns. Flags waving and a real sense of unity and hope in the air.
Our country has a lot to be proud of this weekend. In all constituencies – with only one exception – people voted in favour of marriage being open to all couples, irrespective of their sex. Nationally, 62 per cent voted for gay marriage, with 38 per cent against. This result comes just 22 years after homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland and follows a long fight by LGBT campaigners.
It could have been a very different story. A low turnout would have been a disaster for the yes campaign, as would the absence of the country’s young voters on the day. But the yes side fought long and hard, doorstepping and working to get the vote out right up to the last moment.
In the end, Saturday saw a massive turnout of 60.5 per cent – over 20 per cent more than in Ireland’s last constitutional referendum in 2013.
Many will argue that it is no great triumph for a western country to vote in favour of equal rights for all. I would have to disagree. Last Saturday, most Irish people did not cast a vote for themselves. They went out and voted for their brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues to have the same privileges they already enjoy. For a minority to be recognised with dignity and respect. It is a powerful statement to the world from a historically conservative country.
A near-unanimous yes resounded, despite calls from the Church for a no vote and months of balanced coverage for both sides. The no campaign maintained that children would lose their “constitutional right” to a mother and a father if the referendum passed. But the majority of Irish people were not swayed by fear – even in traditionally conservative rural constituencies. This is a landmark victory for a progressive Ireland.
Young people too engaged with this referendum in a way that was unprecedented. For the first time in the country’s history, social media played a major role in mobilising the youth vote. The “Yes Equality” Facebook campaign had an impressive reach of 1.6 million in the final week before the vote, according to the campaign’s social media coordinator.
Politicians will now look to harness that engagement in next year’s general election. Fine Gael and Labour – the two parties in power – are already basking in the glow of positive global coverage. But this is a victory that belongs to the campaigners. To the gay people of Ireland and those who have supported and vindicated them by voting for their rights.
It is an incredibly emotional moment. On Saturday afternoon, as the final tallies were read out at Dublin Castle, gay men and women hugged and cried tears of joy. Straight people – including myself – cried too. That night, the gay and lesbian community celebrated until the early hours. Public displays of affection between non-straight couples – so rarely seen on Irish streets, even in the capital – were no longer a reason to be afraid.
This referendum result is a significant step towards a more inclusive Ireland. But we still have a way to go to rival the liberalism of other European nations. No sooner had the result been read out on Saturday, then #repealthe8th was trending on Twitter; a reference to eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which bans abortion. It is unlikely that such a constitutional change would pass with such ease and positivity of feeling.
Nevertheless, this weekend has shown the world what the Irish already knew. That the church’s grip on the nation has fallen away in recent decades. And that, as a people, we have a generosity of spirit and kindness that extends beyond the reach of our own experience.
If this referendum had failed to pass, the young people of Ireland – gay and straight – would have felt oppressed by a result that did not reflect them. Recent economic emigrants, who delighted the world by coming “#hometovote“, might have thought twice about returning permanently. Now, when they do, it will be to a more welcoming country than the one they left behind.