In 2012, a dentist of Indian origin, Savita Halappanavar, died of a miscarriage in an Irish hospital. She was around 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to the hospital, but her requests for an abortion were refused. She was told that because the foetus appeared to have a heartbeat and her life did not seem to be in danger, an abortion was not legal. On one occasion, according to media reports, the hospital’s administrators explained to her, “This is a Catholic country.” After the international outrage, the country finally legalised abortion for cases where the mother’s life is at risk. Abortion, however, when the mother’s life is not at risk, still remains illegal. This is how, as the case exposed, Irish laws had always been—steeped in religious conservatism.
For decades now, even as much of Western Europe moved towards more liberal and progressive strains of thought, Ireland continued to be known for its Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church wielded an outsized influence over policies and practices in the country. It controlled almost all schools and hospitals and also exerted substantial influence over the government. Church attendance was once known to be nearly universal in the Republic of Ireland. The country supplied priests for churches all over the world. Not only is abortion illegal in the country, homosexuality was also a criminal offence right until 1993, 26 years after a similar law was overturned in England. Even divorce was legalised only 20 years ago, that too by the slimmest of margins. Unsurprisingly, Pope Paul VI is once reported to have said that the country is the “world’s most Catholic country”.
And now, here we are after a stunning and historic referendum in which Irish citizens have voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Ireland is now one of 20 countries worldwide where same-sex couples can get married. But what is unique is that the new law was not brought about by elected representatives but through popular vote.
Civil partnerships of same-sex couples became legal in Ireland in 2010. This legal protection, however, in theory could be withdrawn by the government at a future date. The alternative was to get the constitution altered to accommodate same-sex marriage. But any change to the constitution in Ireland requires a referendum. The referendum in favour of same-sex marriage means married couples will now have constitutional legitimacy that can only be taken away by another popular vote.
Public support for the ‘Yes Equality’ campaign, as it came to be known, was never in doubt in Irish cities. Yes campaigners were worried how the more rural and conservative parts of the country, where church attendance figures tend to be higher, would vote. Activists and politicians helped steer the campaign, but as media reports have it, ultimately it was a people’s movement.
In the lead up to the referendum, several people came out of the closet to offer support to the campaign. This included the football legend Valerie Mulcahy, and the country’s health minister, Leo Varadkar, one of Ireland’s most prominent politicians, making him the country’s first openly gay cabinet minister. Irish nationals living in foreign countries flew home to register their ‘yes’ vote, many straight people came out to vote to show their support for the equality-of-all principle, and the entire campaign managed to capture the interest and enthusiasm of young people in a way few elections do.
When the results came in, around 62 per cent of the country had voted in favour of same-sex marriage. In total, 1,201,607 people voted in favour, while 734,300 voted against.