The views of the 38 per cent in Ireland opposed to gay marriage should be treated with respect
A woman walks past a mural of two hearts painted in rainbow colors, in Dublin, Ireland Photo: Aidan Crawley/EPA
My Irish friends were divided over the gay marriage referendum and I sympathised with all of them. Those in favour spoke of love and equality and those against of the damaging consequences – particularly for children – of redefining marriage without at the very least enshrining in law the right of children to know their biological parents. Just like the Scottish independence referendum, Yes majored on heart and No on head and the effect was intensely divisive.
I may be conservative, but I’m a social liberal. What made me wobble slightly in my support for the Yes side was its hysterical tone, the emoting and the contemptuous and sometimes vicious treatment of the opposition and the refusal to take its concerns seriously. As one of my “Maybe” friends put it: “What I can’t stand is the combination of arrogance and sentimentality.”
Few had to be brave to wear a Yes badge, but many on the No side decided to keep quiet rather than put up with abuse. Churches were nervous and muted in their criticism. The country in which I was born and brought up has always been intolerant of dissent: in my youth, critics of Irish Catholicism kept their mouths shut or, like me, emigrated. Because of the multi-seat proportional representation system of electing members of parliament, there are no safe seats, so politicians ignored gays: it was only because a Senator (elected by the liberal Trinity College Dublin constituency) took his country to the European Court of Human Rights that homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993.
The scandals of clerical abuse of children threw Ireland into a turmoil: kowtowing to bishops gave way to the vilification of the clergy as a whole in the noughties. As a political and social commentator this atheist found herself one of the few defending the many decent priests and nuns who had done their best to deal with the social problems the state had shovelled at them: it now took courage to wear a clerical collar in public.
And then at the end of 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny surprised everyone by announcing that he was in favour of same-sex marriage and that – as recommended by the Constitutional think tank – the government would hold a referendum on it. A few sceptics noticed that this exciting suggestion distracted attention from myriad inconvenient and expensive recommendations for parliamentary, electoral and other reforms.
The world – which mostly sees Ireland as a romantic spot full of priests, poets, talkers, wits, drinkers and gunmen – became fascinated that this little country might become the first to allow same-sex marriage as a result of a popular vote. A new bandwagon began to roll – funded to the tune of around $17 million by a philanthropic organisation founded by an Irish-American – and the cool people – the literati, the celebrati, the media and the young – were on board immediately. Emigrants – who could vote within 18 months of leaving home if they turned up in person – became involved in social media campaigns such as #hometovote and began booking air and boat tickets.
Political parties jumped on fast. No had the support of only three of 165 TDs (MPs) and four of 60 Senators.
On Saturday morning, before the result was announced, I was interviewed on the World Service. Although I said I would have voted Yes, I talked about the unfair representation of the No campaign. I had a moving email from a Catholic cleric saying: “Thank you for saying what you said about us No voters. We are not homophobic but have felt bullied by the media and our politicians. I suspect that most of the delightful young Yes voters probably saw the referendum as essentially about whether you accepted equality for gay people or not. Would that it was such a referendum, however unnecessary it might have been.”
I spent Saturday evening watching the Eurovision song contest with friends – four gay and one straight. We had much discussion of the Irish result and some difference of opinion since some of us were still bothered about the unresolved issues about children. But one friend spoke very affectingly about what it was like being gay in Dublin in the Eighties and being scared of the police, who monitored discreet gay clubs; I remembered the dreadful treatment of gays over the decades and why they deserved their affirmation and why, despite my reservations, I would have voted Yes.
Praise is coming in from cool people like Hillary Clinton, Miley Cyrus and – inevitably – Stephen Fry, who tweeted that he was “So so happy. Oscar smiles in his grave”. Yes, Ireland is preening itself.
We must hope that the generous spirit that infused so many of the Yes voters will extend to taking seriously the concerns of the 38 per cent who voted No and that they will eschew triumphalism and respect the consciences of clergy and bakers. But Sinn Fein, the noisiest party during the campaign, will now intensify its push for the introduction of gay marriage in socially conservative Northern Ireland – thus widening the fault line in an already divided society.