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.