Ireland became the first country Saturday to legalize same-sex marriage by national referendum, a result that highlights the dramatic pace at which this traditionally conservative Catholic nation has changed in recent times.
Just 22 years after decriminalizing homosexuality, 62.1% of voters approved the measure changing the nation’s constitution to allow gay marriage, according to official results by Ireland’s referendum commission. National turnout in Friday’s poll was 60.5% of 3.2 million eligible voters.
“With today’s vote we have disclosed who we are: a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people,” Prime Minister Enda Kenny said, welcoming the outcome Saturday.
Emily Neenan, a physics student at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, was holding a large rainbow-colored umbrella in the forecourt at Dublin Castle, where “Yes” supporters gathered to celebrate outside the Irish government complex.
“I am absolutely thrilled and I didn’t think it would pass with such a resounding yes,” she said. “Even in more traditional rural areas, it looks like we have done a lot better than we thought we would.”
As Neenan spoke on an unseasonably warm and sunny day in Ireland, an occasional cheer rose up from the crowd as Irish politicians who spearheaded the “Yes” campaign passed close by on their way to be interviewed by Ireland’s domestic broadcasters.
“You know, it’s about time Ireland did this,” she said. “It’s time Irish society better understands what it looks like, and needs.”
Before official results were released, both sides confirmed the outcome earlier Saturday as votes were tallied.
“We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate,” Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s health minister who revealed he was gay during the campaign, told state broadcaster RTE. “That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world of liberty and equality. It’s a very proud day to be Irish.”
David Quinn, the director of the conservative Iona Institute, a leading figure behind the “No” campaign, tweeted: “Congratulations to the ‘Yes’ side. Well done. #MarRef.”
Quinn said Friday that the movement to secure equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Ireland appeared to be insurmountable. For months, polls indicated the majority of Irish voters were in favor of the change.
But in the days leading up to the vote, Ireland’s government — which supports the measure — warned that attitudes may have been hardening and that victory wasn’t certain.
Campaigners on both sides said the high turnout, buoyed by strong engagement from younger members of the electorate as well as the many Irish expatriates who returned home to cast their votes, contributed to the “Yes” result.
The referendum is seen as an especially complex one for Ireland, where about 85% of the population still identify as Roman Catholic even though church attendance has been steadily declining for a few decades. The church’s moral authority has been questioned in the wake of a series of sexual abuse scandals and coverups involving children.
The country has been slow to follow a path of social liberalization that has taken root across Europe. Except in cases where a mother’s life is perceived to be in danger, abortion is still illegal in Ireland. A prohibition on divorce was repealed only in 1996 following a national referendum.
Dublin’s storied pubs were fuller than usual Saturday, and reverie spilled out onto streets all across the capital. Many were carrying balloons, flags and other accessories highlighting an issue that for some in that gay and lesbian community seemed almost too good to be true.
“It’s an incredible day that even two years ago we could not have dared to imagine,” said Panti Bliss, a well-known Irish transvestite who appeared at a rally at Dublin Castle.
“I think (outsiders) are still hung up on the idea that Ireland is some sort of very conservative country ruled by the Catholic Church,” Panti, whose real name is Rory O’Neill, told journalists.
Around the world, 18 countries have approved gay marriage nationwide, the majority of them in Europe. Others, such as the United States and Mexico, have approved it in certain regions. In the United States, 37 states have approved gay marriage and the Supreme Court is currently weighing the issue.
“This is a joyous day for Ireland and for LGBT people and our allies everywhere,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, a U.S.-based gay-advocacy group, said in a statement. “We are thankful for the leadership of the Irish people, and we hope that many countries, including the United States, follow suit by extending marriage to all their citizens.”
Visitors to St. Patrick’s Cathedral — founded in 1191 to honor Ireland’s patron saint — in central Dublin on Saturday afternoon appeared mostly wrapped up in their appreciation of the building’s impressive stonewall facades.
“It is good that Ireland is approving this legislation,” said Michael Lendhofer, a tourist visiting from Hanover, in northwestern Germany.
“But I also think that there are some things about the gay community that I don’t agree with. For example, I think they should be more private,” he said, without elaborating.
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