EMYAPC Image of 'Yes Equality' campaign related mural on display in Dublin city in the build up to the Gay Marriage Referendum
Dubliners: a mural promoting equality in the Irish capital © FT

David Norris can recall a time when he was regarded as the only gay man in Ireland. It was back in the dreary decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when to be in a same-sex relationship in Ireland was not only a crime but almost a contradiction in terms, so alien was it to the official culture. Back then, gay rights were just another lost cause in a country with its fair share of lost causes.

“I used to be ‘the’ Irish homosexual, as if I was the only one,” says Mr Norris, who is a senator in the Irish parliament, one of the country’s most prominent public figures and for decades an “out” gay man.

Yet in about a month’s time, Mr Norris might achieve a kind of apotheosis. The Irish are being asked in a May 22 referendum to approve a “marriage equality” amendment to the constitution that would extend the civil right to marry to same-sex couples, and give them the same constitutional rights as male-female couples. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the public supports the measure. The Irish parliament decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993 and introduced civil partnerships in 2010. If the referendum is passed, Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage through a popular vote.

The speed of this change in attitudes leaves even a veteran campaigner such as Mr Norris a little dizzy. “I’ve made an extraordinary journey,” he says, over coffee and marshmallow biscuits at his home in central Dublin. “I’m 70 years old, and I started out as a criminal. To make the journey from being a criminal to being allowed to get married is a quite astonishing one in one lifetime.”

Approval of the referendum is by no means a certainty. Many members of the Yes campaign, which is backed by almost all the political parties, the media, trade unions, young people and sports and music stars, fear that the public’s support is “soft” — that voters are telling pollsters one thing and will do something else in the voting booth. The No campaign, led mainly by conservative commentators and think-tanks with ties to the Catholic Church, claims the marriage equality amendment transforms the constitutional concept of marriage in a way that will be unacceptable to many Irish people.

Change in attitude

Whatever the outcome, the fact that gay marriage is being put to the people at all is testament to the profound transformation of Irish society. From being one of Europe’s most socially conservative and Catholic societies as late as the 1980s, Ireland finds itself in 2015 on the brink of embracing one of the modern world’s defining issues. It is an issue that is fuelling the culture wars in ostensibly more liberal countries such as the US and France. The Irish, by contrast, are pretty cool about it.

How that happened is key to understanding modern Ireland. It is part of the country’s transition into what Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, says is “a normal European social democracy”. Gráinne Healy, head of the Yes campaign, adds: “It’s a sign that Ireland is moving into a new space, if it hasn’t already occupied it.” The gay marriage referendum will be a big test of this new Irish liberal spirit.

Two developments in recent years have ignited this transition. One is the self-destruction of the Catholic Church, after two decades of revelations of the physical and sexual abuse of children by priests and (sometimes) nuns. At the same time, Irish society is more secular, diverse and materially wealthy than it has ever been, shaped by emigration and immigration, a rapid opening up to the modern world since the 1970s, EU membership and the economic resurgence of the 1990s and early 2000s. Rising material wealth seems to have expanded minds as well as wallets.

Ireland’s apparent willingness to embrace gay marriage is therefore as much a product of the Celtic Tiger years as it is a reflection of the decline of the Church’s influence. These were the defining developments of modern Ireland. (The financial crash and EU-imposed austerity were real enough, but their legacy is as yet uncertain.) Of the two, by far the more striking has been the displacement of the Church from the heart of Irish society.

This institution’s moral authority was once so unchallenged that it shaped the cultural, political and social norms of the republic’s first 60 years. It is now ailing, diminished and confused. Last December the Irish bishops’ conference issued a “pastoral statement” called “The Meaning of Marriage” which cautioned against any attempt to “redefine” it. But when a bishop recently said gay people could indeed get married, just not to each other — because it would “redefine” marriage — he was carpeted by his superiors because his statement was seen to be divisive.

Tom Inglis, a sociologist who has written extensively about the Church and Irish society, says: “In this referendum it is irrelevant what the Church thinks. The era of the Church as the moral conscience of Irish society is over.” Or as Mr Norris puts it: “Every time a bishop appears on television to talk about gay marriage it’s like an episode of Father Ted,” the cherished 1990s TV comedy.

Papal peak

The decline of the Church is all the more stark because its position a generation ago seemed so unassailable. Its high-water mark arguably came over a few chilly days in September 1979, when John Paul II became the first pope to visit Ireland. A million people — the biggest ever Irish gathering — heard him say mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin, and 300,000 youngsters did the same in the western city of Galway. The Irish bishops were ecstatic at such an outpouring of faith.

Yet the moment was deceptive, for two reasons. First, even as John Paul was lauding the faith of the Irish and warning them to resist the temptations of the modern world, politicians were grappling with demands to liberalise laws on contraception, the availability of which was tightly restricted, and divorce, which was banned. The momentum for change came mainly from women, led by personalities such as former president Mary Robinson. It was accelerated by a growing familiarity with European social habits through Ireland’s membership of the then European Economic Community, which it joined in 1973.

Within a few years of John Paul’s visit, many of the restrictions on contraception would be abolished. A referendum to legalise divorce was heavily defeated in 1986, but voters backed it narrowly in 1995. Other liberalising laws followed, often through referendums. These votes gradually exposed a rift between the Church and the people, and between the Church and the politicians.

These were external challenges to its position that the Church was powerless to resist. But a more insidious threat to the institution was incubating inside its own walls. The papal event in Galway had one striking aspect, which is the second reason it was deceptive. While the youthful congregation waited for the Pope, they were regaled from the stage with jokes, prayers and singing by the two most famous clergymen of their time in Ireland — Eamon Casey, the bishop of Galway, and Michael Cleary, a priest who was a fixture on talkshows.

Both men turned out to be imposters. Within 15 years of their warm-up act, Dr Casey was revealed to have had a child with an American woman, forcing him into missionary exile, while Cleary turned out on his death in 1993 to have had two children with his housekeeper. These were the first manifestations, at least that the faithful got to witness, of a culture of sexual misbehaviour within the Church. After them, the deluge.

The liberalisation of official attitudes towards sexual relations has seen the Irish banish the Church from their bedrooms, while the uncovering of crimes against children has persuaded many to banish it from their homes. They no longer seem prepared to accept lectures about sex from ageing, celibate men.

“Irish people have redefined their relationship with the Catholic Church in recent years,” says Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper. “Many of them are neither in nor out. They are functionally atheist — they belong but they don’t believe. And they are much less bothered by the sins of others than they were in the past.”

Catholic ‘in a different way’

Ireland was hardly the only European country in the 1960s and 1970s that was repressive and socially conservative. Spain and Portugal were ruled by military dictatorships in cahoots with the Catholic Church. The celebrated student riots in Paris in 1968 were ignited, at least in part, by the refusal of university authorities to agree to mixed sleeping quarters. Yet Spain and France had a strong anticlerical tradition, unlike Ireland. “The Irish Catholic Church was built on persecution [by British colonial rule], and saw itself as immune to change — it was the symbiosis of nationalism and religion,” Mr Kelly says.

Irish Senator David Norris gives the thumbs-down sign as he casts his ballot during the Seanad (senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on October 4, 2013. Cash-strapped Ireland voted in a referendum on Friday on whether to back Prime Minister Enda Kenny's controversial proposals to abolish the upper house of parliament. AFP PHOTO/ PETER MUHLY (Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
Irish senator and veteran rights campaigner David Norris: ‘To make the journey from being a criminal to being allowed to get married is an astonishing one in one lifetime’ © AFP

Father Sean McDonagh, founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, an organisation that defends the institution of the priesthood and the many Irish priests who did not commit crimes against children, says it may be too early to write off the Catholic Church in Ireland. It can and should regain a position of respected authority, but only when it adapts to the modern world. The travails of the Church have made the Irish people not necessarily less Catholic, but “Catholic in a different way”, he says.

The association has decided “not to adopt a position in favour of or against” the referendum. The issue is “an argument about modernity, and who could be against that?” Fr McDonagh says.

That stance reflects the marriage equality debate. It is not an issue that grabs the public. Politicians may be supportive, but few seem willing to knock on doors soliciting a Yes vote. “On the surface, we have all signed up for cultural liberal individualism and a laissez faire approach to civil rights,” Mr Inglis says. “But this is not an issue that is being debated in pubs and clubs. It’s a private thing.”

Moreover, the Irish are often reluctant to change the constitution, especially on issues that represent a leap into the relative unknown. As both the Yes and the No campaigns point out, it took two referendums to win approval for the introduction of divorce in Ireland — an issue that probably affects more families than same-sex marriage.

“Marriage equality is a very liberal and modern idea, and Irish people are much more conservative than they believe themselves to be,” Mr Kelly says.

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