Irish referendum on gay marriage underway

At this very moment, voters in Ireland are headed to the polls to determine whether same-sex marriage will be a constitutionally protected right for all citizens. If the referendum passes, it would mark the first occasion ever for same-sex marriage to be approved by a national referendum in any country. That means that this represents a historic test to advance the rights of LGBT people that should command attention whether or not one follows politics on the Emerald Isle.

Voting in Ireland ends at 10pm, which means preliminary exit polls may be released as early as 5pm EST. We’ll be live-tweeting updates on the referendum throughout the day.

Irish voters would become the first to approve  same-sex marriage by way of the popular vote in part due to the peculiarities of the Irish Constitution. To date, each of the 18 or so (depending on how you count) countries that have already legalized gay marriage have decided to do so through the courts — as the U.S. Supreme Court looks set to do this June. However, any change to the Irish constitution must be voted up or down by the electorate, and despite the fact that “civil partnerships” have been legal in Ireland for some time, putting same-sex marriage into the constitution will ensure that the government continues to respect these unions with an ironclad guarantee. Otherwise, the policy may be subject to a lengthy appeals process and challenged in the Irish Supreme Court.

Referenda in Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia all produced negative results for same-sex marriage supporters, though the Slovenian legislature passed a law approving marriage equality earlier this year that has yet to take effect.

So far, there have been 35 proposed amendments to the Irish constitution, many of which deal with social issues. The island nation banned abortion, for example, in 1983, and subsequent referenda in 1992 and 2002 have sought to expand or contract those restrictions. In 1986, Irish voters chose not to lift a constitutional ban on divorce by a large margin; that changed in 1996, when attitudes had shifted sufficiently that the ban was removed by similarly large margins. Likewise, 62% of Irish voters chose to prohibit the death penalty in 2002. So legislating hot-button social questions by referenda is nothing new in Ireland, though history has shown that the voters are willing to change their minds, too.

A predominantly Catholic nation, Ireland may not seem like it would be the first nation to accept same-sex marriage by the popular vote, but preliminary polling suggests that a Yes vote approving marriage equality is the likely outcome of the day. All of the major political parties in Ireland, including the leadership of center-right Fine Gael, support the Yes Equality campaign.

Still, as an excellent Guardian article points out, history shows that the polling on these matters has been wrong before in Ireland. This March, 66% percent of voters saw themselves voting Yes on the referendum versus 24% who would vote No. That gap has shrunk slightly in the interim. It is possible that some voters who are agnostic about marriage may say one thing when asked publicly but vote another way when in private. And as always, turnout here will be key, with many young Irish emigrants returning home to turn in their votes today as well.

As of this moment, nothing should be taken for granted. Expect this crucial Irish referendum to be a nail-biter until the very end.


James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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