| 0.9°C Dublin

Andrew Lynch: Gay marriage vote will show how far or little we've come

Close

An off duty Rory O'Neill aka "Pandora Panti Bliss" in his dressing room at Panti Bar Capel st

An off duty Rory O'Neill aka "Pandora Panti Bliss" in his dressing room at Panti Bar Capel st

An off duty Rory O'Neill aka "Pandora Panti Bliss" in his dressing room at Panti Bar Capel st

Ireland's great culture war is about to see another bloody battle.

After years of speculation, the Government has confirmed that a referendum on same-sex marriage will be held in May 2015.

The stage is set for a bitter, divisive contest between conservative and liberal forces - one that will almost certainly be a lot closer than most people expect.

If anybody doubts that gay issues still have the power to split Ireland in two, just remember this year's Pantigate controversy.

Drag queen Rory O'Neill (below) landed RTE with an €85,000 bill last January, after he made certain remarks on The Saturday Night Show during a debate on homophobia.

However, Miss Panti arguably had the last laugh when he made a passionate speech about life as a gay Irishman at the Abbey Theatre that went viral and won praise from celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Madonna.

According to the opinion polls, O'Neill and his supporters will have good reason to celebrate next May.

The latest survey suggests that 71pc of us have decided to vote for gay marriage and only 17pc are against. In fact, the 'yes' side is actually stretching its huge lead.

Nobody should be fooled by these polls, however. Five days before last year's Seanad referendum, surveys showed that people would vote 62-38 in favour of scrapping the upper house. The actual result was 52-48 against.

voting

Another example of late shocks came in the 2011 presidential election. Sean Gallagher looked on course for a landslide victory over Michael D Higgins, but his chances were suddenly destroyed by a last-minute television meltdown.

The obvious lesson is that whatever Irish people tell opinion pollsters, they are entitled to and do change their minds up until voting day itself.

In other words, pro-gay marriage campaigners would be crazy to expect victory on a plate. Instead, they will have to come out and fight for it.

They must also remember that while homophobia is no longer acceptable in polite society, there are almost certainly lots of people who still feel it in their hearts.

For middle-aged and older citizens in particular, the notion of gay marriage takes some time to get your head around.

One obvious example is Enda Kenny, who nearly fell into a flower pot two years ago as he tried to avoid journalists' questions on the issue.

Now he is fully behind the idea and proved it earlier this month by becoming the first Taoiseach to visit a gay bar.

In fairness to Enda he is hardly the only political leader to have a public change of heart on gay rights. The great liberal hero Barack Obama was opposed to same-sex marriage before dramatically reversing his position in 2012.

David Cameron once voted for a law that banned the "promotion of homosexuality" in British schools, but now he says, "I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a conservative."

Even Pope Francis himself has asked, "Who am I to judge gay people?", although Irish bishops recently condemned same-sex marriage as "a grave injustice".

On the surface, then, the tide of world opinion seems to be flowing in one direction. The big question remains: how many people in Ireland secretly fear we are moving too fast?

ILLEGAL

After all, it is barely 20 years since homosexuality was completely illegal here and campaigners such as David Norris had to take Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights.

Irish history is full of much-loved gay figures, including Oscar Wilde and Micheal Mac Liammoir. Some historians even suspect that the great republican icon Patrick Pearse leaned in that direction.

Until recently, however, it was the love that dare not speak its name - and to go from public banishment to full marriage rights in one generation would be an almighty leap.

Whatever the result, next May's referendum is sure to tell us something very interesting about how much - or how little - Irish society has changed in recent years.

Let's hope that we like what we see.


Privacy