How Same-Sex Marriage Won Out in Ireland

Intense pressure from political and cultural elites, together with millions of dollars in foreign funding, resulted in a victory for gay rights activists in the majority-Catholic country.

Ireland, once dubbed “the most Catholic country in the world” by the future Pope Paul VI, has become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by means of a popular vote.

For months, opinion polls had been consistent is showing huge levels of support for the constitutional amendment to re-define marriage.

On the day, 62 percent of people voted “yes” for same-sex marriage. It was not the absolute landslide pundits had predicted, but it was an emphatic rejection of the traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman.

David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute and de facto leader of the “no” campaign, was magnanimous, conceding defeat just over an hour after the counting of votes began and the pattern was clear.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin described the result as a “social revolution.”

“We [the Church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities,” Archbishop Martin said. “We won’t begin again with a sense of renewal, with a sense of denial.”

The archbishop—a former Vatican diplomat who has headed Ireland’s largest diocese for more than a decade—had been criticized during the campaign by some for being too timid in presenting the Church’s teaching on marriage. In the final days, he did take to the airwaves to make a plea for a “no” vote. However, he angered some “no” campaigners for refusing to say Catholics ought to vote “no.”

The bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, was among the most vocal opponents of the redefinition of marriage in the Irish hierarchy. He led a robust campaign and frequently engaged in media debates in an attempt to have the proposal defeated.

Responding to the result, he said: “The outcome of the marriage referendum is clear and decisive.”

Bishop Doran got to the heart of why the “yes” campaign proved so convincing in the end. “It seems that many people voted ‘yes’ as a way of showing their acceptance and their love for friends and family members who are gay,” he said.

“Large numbers obviously believed that they could vote ‘yes’ without in any way undermining marriage.”

How has it happened that a country in which 84 percent of people describe themselves as Catholic has become the first state in the world to enact same-sex marriage by means of a popular vote? How has it happened that a country in which 43 percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly and 60 percent attend Mass at least once a month was so deaf to the pleas of their shepherds?

Officially, the campaign for same-sex marriage began only months ago. Eighteen months ago, for example, the prime minister, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was lukewarm about the proposal. He later emerged as one of its strongest supporters.

To find the genesis of the campaign, one must look beyond the Emerald Isle to the United States and wealthy philanthropists who use their money and influence to buy radical social change around the world.

Pro-same-sex marriage campaigners in Ireland have benefited to the tune of millions of dollars from Atlantic Philanthropies, the organization used by billionaire Chuck Feeney to fund socially liberal causes.

According to Atlantic, the Irish Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) received $4,727,860 between 2005 and 2011.

In its own literature, Atlantic explains that in 2005, “GLEN was essentially a voluntary organization with a single-funded post working on gay HIV strategies.” According to the recent report “Catalyzing LGBT Equality and Visibility in Ireland,” “[GLEN’s] multi-year grant from Atlantic enabled them to ramp up their work into a full-time, highly professionalized lobbying machine. It works ‘inside’ the machinery of government where it uses a ‘principled pragmatist’ model in which it consolidates support, wins over the doubtful, and pacifies those who are opposed.”

“GLEN leaders believed that the most viable way to embed long-lasting social change was to legislate incrementally, waiting to advocate for civil marriage until the population was acculturated to the ordinariness of same-sex unions,” the report reads.

Breda O’Brien, a columnist with the Irish Times and a longtime Catholic activist, has said she is stunned that the Irish media are not interested in this overseas funding, and instead minimize its influence. “The only acceptable narrative is that this is a benign grassroots movement, because if we admitted that it is instead a slick, elite movement of highly educated professionals funded from abroad, we might have to admit we were skillfully manipulated. And that could not be true,” she said.

Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies credits itself with securing civil partnership in 2010, describing it as “some of the most far-reaching legal protections for gay and lesbian couples in the world.”

Civil partnership affords far greater rights than “US state-based civil marriage because the latter cannot include federal rights in critical areas such as immigration, tax, and health benefits.”

In 2009, GLEN had 348 media appearances—179 broadcasts and the rest ranging from national newspapers to the Law Society Gazette. Almost one per day.

Another campaign organization, Marriage Equality, got one grant of $475,215 from Atlantic. It enabled the group to set up a full-time office, to lobby, and to use “backroom” tactics like “hiring professional political advisers who were working with the government on other issues to report back on the government’s thinking on same-sex marriage,” according to an Atlantic report.

Another key backer of same-sex marriage, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), from 2001 to 2010, received $7,727,700 from Atlantic, and another $3,829,693 between 2010 and 2013.

O’Brien described Atlantic’s role as “foreign money being systematically invested to change public opinion, to deliver seamlessly a ‘yes’ in a referendum that has enormous consequences for family law for generations.”

The role of prominent Catholics who dissent from Church teaching was also crucial in convincing many Mass-going Catholics to side with the “yes” campaign against the Church.

Fr. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest who is currently suspended for holding views at odds with Catholic teaching, was vocal in telling Catholics that supporting same-sex marriage was the right thing to do.

Fr. Flannery wrote: “I do not accept that any blame or moral fault can be attributed to someone who is gay. It is the way that God created them, and part of his plan for their life, or, as one might say, part of the hand of cards they were dealt. So, to suggest that a gay person is in any way less a human being, less perfect or less moral, is totally wrong. They are as much entitled to their dignity as human person as anyone else.”

He went on to add: “Because of the struggle they have experienced, first in coming to terms with themselves, and then with the negative attitudes in society, they have developed particularly sensitive antennae to rejection of any sort. For me, the really Christian thing is to give them a strong and clear message that they are loved and accepted just as they are, and that they deserve to be treated with the same dignity as the rest of us.”

Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland and hugely influential woman who has spoken passionately about the importance of her Catholicism, also backed a “yes” vote and insisted that it was the Christian thing to do. Far from stating her defiance of the Church, McAleese said she was voting “yes” because of her faith.

These appeals drew a sharp rebuke from Dr. John Murray, a theologian teaching at Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute of Education.

“In every case that I have read or heard, none of these people has referred to the actual teaching of Jesus on marriage,” Murray said. “Jesus’ teaching is surely the foundation of any theological or faith-shaped response to this referendum.”

“We need to ask Catholics who promote a vote to change our constitutional and legal understanding of marriage: Do you consider the Church’s practice and understanding of the sacrament to be discriminatory? They might say that they in no way are criticizing the sacrament. But if they believe that is always seriously unjust to treat same-sex relationships as in any significant way different from opposite-sex unions with regard to marriage and family and children, and want this very principle enshrined in the constitution, then how can they not consider the sacrament to be discriminatory and wrong? And thus reject their Catholic faith and the gospel of Christ?” Murray asked.

Another factor in the “yes” campaign victory was the ability to keep the argument simple. While “no” campaigners made arguments about the rights of children to have a mother and a father, the nature of marriage, complementarity, and the common good, the “yes” campaign stuck to vague slogans like “equality” and “fairness.” Advocates for a “yes” from the government were emphatic: “This is about love and equality—nothing else,” read the simple message.

Supporters of change also understood the powerful use of narrative in a country where everyone is a storyteller. Countless gay celebrities and personalities were given soft interviews by a willing media to explain the difficulties they had growing up gay in Ireland and how much the passing of the referendum would mean to them. It was simply about being decent, ran the constant mantra.

And Irish people are decent, and a history of oppression has made them sensitive to any minority claiming to be oppressed.

The “yes” campaign also had what virtually no other campaign in Irish history has had: all of the political parties were supporting a “yes” vote and were able to put their considerable resources, including grassroots organizers, into the campaign.

David Quinn says, “It is amazing to think that so many people hadn’t a single political party to represent them. Instead it fell to a handful of individuals from civic society and a handful of mostly independent politicians to do so.”

Quinn believes that “had even one of the major political parties backed the ‘no’ side, the number of people who voted ‘no’ would have swelled. It would have made a big difference to have the machinery of one of the main parties on our side. Not a decisive difference necessarily, but a difference.”

He thinks it would be “a useful exercise” to survey those who voted “yes” to find out their reasons for doing so. “We would probably find that every one of them had voted ‘yes’ out of a sense of fairness. But how many really believe that the biological ties between children and their parents don’t really matter? How many really believe that mothers and fathers are interchangeable and that the differences between the sexes don’t matter at all when it comes to raising children?”

Breda O’Brien is bothered by the continued characterization of “no” voters in the media. “No” voters, she insists, “are just as generous and inclusive as their neighbors who voted ‘yes,’ and just as fond of their gay relatives. In fact, some of them are gay themselves.”

“That does not fit the dominant narrative that only people who were rigid, intolerant, and fearful voted ‘no.’ It is an inconvenient truth that this was not a referendum on whether we like gay people or not,” O’Brien insists.

For her, most “yes” voters did so for positive reasons. “The vast majority of ‘yes’ voters also voted from generous and humane impulses. More importantly, parents and relations of gay children, in particular, desperately wanted to convey to their children that they were just as equal as their straight siblings. We can all admire that and understand why they feel they have achieved that objective.”

“We do not have to admire the fact that the campaign may have lasted weeks, but the soft coverage of gay icons and celebrities and ‘human interest’ stories pushing the ‘yes’ side have been going on for years, with the enthusiastic collusion of the media.”

“We do not have to admire a government who relentlessly framed this so it was always going to be a battle between the heart and the head. We do not have to admire government ministers who talked about damaging the gay people’s mental health if we voted ‘no,’” she adds.

What are the lessons for the Church from the debate? Archbishop Martin has pointed to the fact that most of the “yes” voters were actually products of Catholic schools.

Shane Farrell, a prominent Irish blogger on Church affairs, believes that the bishops should have been stronger in asserting the Church’s teaching. “[The hierarchy] allowed liberal clergy to muddy the waters,” he said. “Many Catholics in good faith thought a ‘yes’ vote was consistent with their faith.”

He is clear on the “reality check” that the Church needs to take: “The lesson that the Church should draw from the marriage referendum is that there’s an urgent pastoral necessity for a lot more catechesis on sexual morality.”

For Archbishop Martin, the vote in favor of same-sex marriage is part of a process. “It’s a social revolution that’s been going on—perhaps in the Church people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved,” he said.

David Quinn also sees the bigger picture. “It is plain and obvious that abortion and assisted suicide are next on the agenda,” he said.

“Those seeking abortion will be hugely emboldened by what happened on Friday. At the same time, however, many politicians will know that the 38 percent of people who voted against same-sex marriage can be turned into a majority opposed to deleting the Eighth Amendment [which bans abortion].”

“Perhaps this will slow things down a little, but not for long,” Quinn said.

“No” campaigners are clearly disappointed. But they should take comfort in the fact that when the debate began, polls showed that only 17 percent of voters would reject the redefinition of marriage. On the day, however, that swelled to 38 percent. One cannot underestimate the significance of the cultural shift that has taken place. However, reading mainstream media reports, one would get the impression that only a hardened fringe of people voted “no.” Overall, one in three Irish people resisted the huge pressure of the media and political parties. “No” campaigners can take heart from that, and steel themselves for the fights ahead.

About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.