Irish voters hit the polls Friday for a historic vote on a constitutional amendment that will guarantee marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. It is poised to be the first such law passed in a European country by popular vote.
Preliminary polls suggest the amendment will pass by wide margins – recent numbers predict around 70% will vote ‘yes.’ But the numbers have shifted slightly in recent weeks, which some read as evidence of a crisis of conscience among Ireland’s traditional electorate. It seems obvious that the actual text of the proposed amendment was carefully crafted with the old guard in mind: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
The hesitation to rattle delicate sensibilities is surely reflective of the cultural influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Up until recently, Ireland would have made anyone’s short list of the world’s Catholic strongholds. These days, fewer than half of Irish people describe themselves as religious. Many commentators see the projected success of the gay marriage amendment as a symbol of just how weak the Catholic Church’s hold over the nation has become.
This is a far cry from the Ireland of the 1970s, when the tenets of Catholicism were in some ways indistinguishable from the law of the land. Homosexual activity was only decriminalized in 1993, and divorce was illegal until 1995. (Anti-abortion laws remain quite stringent compared to other E.U. states, but these are increasingly unpopular.) Earlier this week, Irish journalist Ursula Halligan wrote a column coming out as a lesbian, and specifically discussing how difficult it was to grow up the religious, heteronormative culture of her youth: “I was a good Catholic girl, growing up in 1970s Ireland where homosexuality was an evil perversion,” Halligan wrote in the Irish Times. “It was never openly talked about but I knew it was the worst thing on the face of the earth.” She concluded by arguing that Catholicism is in no way incompatible with supporting homosexuals’ rights to be who they are.
In addition to being an indicator of declining religiosity, the popularity of marriage equality in Ireland may well be indicative of declining nationalism. After all – Catholicism was more than just a religion in Ireland – it was a national identity. The long-running tensions between the U.K. and Republican partisans in Northern Ireland were often conceived as a sort of proxy war between Anglicans and Catholics. In that sense, Catholicism and patriotism have long been intertwined.
But decades after the so-called “Times of Troubles,” nationalist fervor has cooled. Even the Republican-identified Party Sinn Fein seems to have eased up on its anti-Brit stance. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams grabbed headlines earlier this week with a once-taboo handshake with Prince Charles, driving home the idea that tensions between the star-crossed states have dissipated. Sinn Fein also recently voted to support abortion rights, furthering the idea that identifying as Irish no longer necessitates hard-line Catholicism. As globalization – and multinational polities like the European Union – erode strictly nationalist narratives, Ireland is likely to drift even further from its Catholic roots. Endorsing marriage equality may feel like a stretch in an Irish context, but it’s just right in the European one.