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Why Enda is no longer falling over flower pots when it comes to same-sex marriage

Analysis: The Taoiseach delivered a strong backing for a Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum on Saturday night.

OUTSIDE THE MAIN hall in Castlebar’s Royal Theatre last Saturday night the Fine Gael faithful were milling around assessing the speech that Enda Kenny had just delivered.

There was no doubt that the most significant lines of the night from the Taoiseach were on the same-sex marriage referendum. Kenny’s “letters of freedom” moment was pretty strong stuff.

“This is about you, it’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO. For you, in your lives together, may they become your letters of freedom,” he told the delegates and the television audience at home.

The remarks did not receive the same rapturous applause that the bashing of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil did throughout much of the weekend. Indeed ‘lukewarm’ is the fairest assessment of the response within the Royal Theatre to his remarks.

Shortly after the speech, one TD informed us they had already had a text from a priest back in the constituency. The clergy member wasn’t best pleased. One minister remarked, though not at all disparagingly, that Kenny was now firmly setting himself up to go down in history as the most liberal taoiseach that Ireland has ever had.

The journey to the point where Kenny felt comfortable enough to deliver his strongest endorsement yet of a Yes vote in the 22 May referendum has been a long one and not without its incidents.

Prior to taking office, it was widely reported that Kenny was not in favour of legalising same-sex marriage in Ireland.

Then in July 2012, he nearly fell over a flower pot during a doorstep interview with journalists outside the National Library as TV3′s Ursula Halligan sought his views on same-sex marriage and whether he was for or against it.

kennyhall The media scrum where Enda Kenny famously avoided a question on same-sex marriage in July 2012. Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Kenny repeatedly refused to express a view when probed on the issue by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in the Dáil. It became even more difficult when his government colleague, then-Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, described marriage equality as “the civil rights issue of this generation”.

When we put this to Kenny in a roundtable interview in December 2013 and asked if he shared Gilmore’s view, the Taoiseach flatly stated that he didn’t and that for him it was all about creating jobs.

Once the government committed to holding a referendum, Kenny steadfastly insisted that he and his party would support and campaign for a Yes vote.

But there was never any indication as to how he or why he believed it was important to allow same-sex couples to marry. For him, it seemed simply to be a case of government having made a decision – which was primarily as a result of Labour’s desire for a referendum – and now implementing that decision.

Then last December, Kenny paid a visit to Panti Bar in central Dublin where the Fine Gael LGBT group was holding an event.

The sight of the leader of the country in a gay bar made international headlines and was seen as another positive endorsement of Ireland’s social progression.

Saturday night’s comments in his hometown of Castlebar are another step. It was a powerful few lines from Kenny on a subject that is emotive for many.

However, he will not take everyone from his party with him on this issue. That much was clear from the reaction to his speech on Saturday night.

Many within Fine Gael, whether for or against the referendum, are unconvinced that ‘Middle Ireland’ can be convinced and are anecdotally reporting a lot of opposition to the referendum on the doors, particularly in rural areas.

Winning the referendum is becoming more of a challenge for the government than it perhaps anticipated.

Still, in Kenny’s case this whole issue has been a rare example of a politician changing their mind and coming around to another way of thinking on an issue. Sadly, we don’t often see that in this game but it’s nice when it does happen.

Read: Here are 8 things we learned at Enda’s big homecoming shindig

Enda: “It’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO”

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