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What an extraordinary, historic and momentous day for Ireland

Ireland’s decision to become the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage via a popular referendum shows just how much it has changed in recent years.

People celebrate the result at the Marriage Equality Referdendum count centre in the RDS.
People celebrate the result at the Marriage Equality Referdendum count centre in the RDS.
Image: Leah Farrell/Photocall Ireland

HISTORIC AND MOMENTOUS may be the two most overly and inappropriately used words in contemporary journalistic parlance. That being said, it’s difficult for anyone to quibble with their application to Ireland’s decision to become the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage via a popular referendum.

While most of us who very closely monitor and then reflect upon all things political expected that a majority would ultimately vote Yes to amending Bunreacht na hÉireann, virtually none of us anticipated the extraordinary size of that majority. An incredible number of Irish people – rural and urban, middle and working class, young and old, men and women – went to their polling stations and endorsed the principle of marriage equality. Above all else, their clear will manifests just how much and how rapidly Ireland has changed in recent years.

The absolute absurdity of denying recent emigrants the right to vote

Before offering some takeaways on what will be the 34th amendment to the Constitution, the other referendum question the electorate was asked – on reducing the age of eligibility to serve as President of Ireland from 35 to 21 – merits brief consideration. As widely forecast, it has been rejected by a wide margin. It was unsurprisingly overshadowed by the marriage referendum and cynics can be forgiven for opining that it was on the ballot mainly as an outlet for people to say No to the Government on something. Advocates made a strong case for lowering the age, but most voters never bought it and took the view that the country has far more urgent priorities.

Returning to the marriage referendum, first, the social media campaign using the hashtags #gettheboattovote and #hometovote was an innovative, highly effective way of engaging recent Irish emigrants and succeeded in persuading many of them to travel home and cast ballots. While those who travelled deserve a lot of credit for being so committed to the future of this country, the fact that they had to go to such lengths highlights the absolute absurdity of denying recent emigrants the right to take part in the essence of the democratic process. This Government has paid the issue little more than lip service and it’s just not good enough. Opposition parties and independents would be wise to make this inaction an issue come the next general election.

The role of social media

Second, many commentators have already remarked upon the unprecedented role played by social media in the marriage referendum. Former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD commented that it is now clear that “social media has changed the way politics will be conducted” and that campaigns will henceforward be much more of a “two way dialogue” between politicians and the electorate. Judging by the omnipresence on Twitter for the past several months of the leaders of the Yes Equality movement, of political parties and of some individual politicians and the consequent outcome, these commentators are probably right.

However, an important footnote needs to be added about just how social media is best used to win over voters. Social media is not an end in itself. Indeed, most predominantly young regular users of Twitter and Facebook have long been in favour of same-sex marriage.

Facebook and Twitter were probably most effective in the marriage referendum campaign as a means of drawing out more supporters to canvasses and in eliciting more volunteers to help get out the vote. The capacity of social media to disseminate information makes it an extremely powerful tool in political campaigning, but this referendum was won on the doorsteps, on the thoroughfares of towns and cities and in the polling booths. For the time being at least, Irish elections will primarily be won and lost on the streets, not on the information superhighway.

Young people DO care

Third, the exceptionally high turnout of men and women under 30 years of age shoots a lot of holes in the regularly proffered argument that “young people just don’t care.” They clearly do care about issues that move them. It was wonderful for Irish democracy to have tens of thousands register, campaign and vote – many for the first time. The key question is the extent to which these newly engaged citizens will remain involved in politics.

If they do, as the referendum result indicates, they will be a potent force. It would be well worth the expenditure of time and effort for the political parties, in particular the parties’ youth wings, to seek to attract their support in the next general election. Their activism in the next and future elections could alter some of the conventional wisdom about Irish politics.

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All politics is personal

Fourth, Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local,” but more precisely, all politics is personal. It may still be anecdotal at this stage, but it seems that an important factor in the decision-making of many who ticked the Yes box was their personal experience of having lesbian and gay relatives and friends. Their cognisance of the discrimination and/or homophobia endured by loved ones definitely motivated countless voters to back a Yes – even if they weren’t entirely comfortable with the concept of same-sex marriage or the purportedly related issues of surrogacy and adoption raised by the No side.

Lastly, some advocates expressed sincere unease about popular votes on the rights of minority groups in the last days of the referendum campaign. This sentiment is understandable. But I still believe that it is almost always better for verdicts on profound moral questions to be delivered by the people or their representatives, rather than by unelected judges, in a democratic republic. And for those who claim that the majority will invariably trample upon and repel the legitimate interests of the minority? Please remember what the Irish people have done on this historic and momentous occasion.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with and Irish

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AS IT HAPPENED: Early tallies point to a YES and No campaigners concede


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