Our republic of equals has sent a message of hope to the entire world
Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30
Ireland has just become the first country in the world to approve marriage equality by popular vote.
On Friday, the Irish people voted in a referendum to give same-sex couples the equal constitutional right to marry.
I am not surprised. Three years ago, at the Tom Johnson Summer School, I said that this was an issue on which our laws were out of step with public opinion.
"It is not the role of the State to pass judgement on who a person falls in love with, or who they want to spend their life with.
"That is why one of the reforms for consideration by the Constitutional Convention is a provision for same-sex marriage.
"I believe in gay marriage. The right of gay couples to marry is quite simply the civil rights issue of this generation, and in my opinion its time has come."
The resounding vote, especially by the young, proves that statement correct.
But how did it happen in a land once renowned for its social conservatism and in which until 20 years ago homosexual acts were criminally illegal?
The Ireland of today, which made this historic decision, is a warmer, more tolerant, more humane place than the country in which I grew to adulthood.
Remember that the general sale of condoms was illegal until the mid-80s; divorce was prohibited by the Constitution until 1996; and women did not get equal pay for the exact same work as a man until 1976.
Lone parenthood and homosexuality were regarded as a disgrace on families; and mental hospitals were full of perfectly sane people who were committed because they could not conform, or were just socially different.
The modernisation of Ireland, and the liberalisation of its social laws, owes much to education, and to the women's movement. The introduction of free second-level education in 1967 and the expansion of third-level opportunities in the late Sixties and early Seventies gave rise to an educated new generation (of which I was one), less willing to take dogmatic dictation from their church. The advent of television provided a platform for public debate on issues such as sexuality, which had hitherto been taboo.
Women gave the lead. They were no longer willing to have their sex lives and their child-bearing determined by elderly celibate, and often unsympathetic, male clerics. By persisting to oppose and condemn artificial contraception, the Catholic Church lost its hold on Ireland's social laws. They never got it back. That is why last week, the overwhelming majority of people refused to heed the bishops' voting advice.
The Church's dire warnings about social collapse have not materialised either. Indeed, last week's referendum has probably strengthened the institutions of marriage and the family. For good or ill, the central social standing of marriage has been enhanced by the campaign of the LGBT community. It seemed to me that families were coming together during the campaign, to vote as families for the inclusion of all their family members. They were voting for their brothers and sisters, children and grand-children who might be gay, so that they can live a full life and be happy. For many, voting 'Yes' in this referendum was an act of family solidarity. Our former President, Mary McAleese, expressed this in her intervention.
Of course, the referendum did not occur spontaneously. LGBT campaigners have long sought the right to marry. I recall that when the Labour Party was the first to propose a Private Members' Bill on Civil Unions in 2006, there was disappointment and some criticism that we had then stopped short of marriage. The Constitution would have to be amended to allow same-sex marriage, and in my view a referendum would stand a better chance of succeeding, if Civil Partnership legislation and Family Relationships legislation was already in place.
I know that there were some who were impatient with that incremental approach, and I hope that they appreciate now why it was necessary, and as it has turned out, successful.
I am particularly glad that the Labour Party continued to give a political lead on the issue. Our manifesto for the 2011 general election promised to "hold a referendum on gay marriage rights". In the Programme for Government which we made with Fine Gael after the election, we agreed to refer the issue to the new Constitutional Convention. But I was determined that it would not be warehoused there, and so when the Convention recommended a referendum, we pressed ahead with it. I acknowledge the role of the Taoiseach, in agreeing to hold the referendum in the first half of 2015, and in his support for the proposition.
While there were few who initially agreed that this was the civil rights issue of this generation, it was great to see support mobilise for gay marriage. The result is a liberation for gay people, and a declaration of their equality. But it also makes an important statement from and for Ireland. We are a republic of equals; and to a world where discrimination based on sexuality is on the increase, it sends a message of hope.