A gay day for equality

Anne McShane celebrates the defeat of the Catholic church and calls for the battle for democracy to include the aim of socialism

Who would have thought that holy Roman Ireland would become the first country in the world to vote for gay marriage?

On Friday May 22, 1.2 million people (62%) voted to accept an amendment to article 41 of the Irish constitution allowing marriage “by two persons without distinction as to their sex”. Two out of three voters approved what is a very significant breach in the Catholic constitution. The result reflects the mass secularisation of Irish society, along with the discrediting of the church in the eyes of much of the population.

A relatively high turnout of over 60% was bolstered by a surge of late voting registrations, mostly from young people. Facebook and Twitter were used to gather momentum behind a ‘yes’ vote and to promote the concept of equality. Hundreds of young Irish migrants returned just to vote. For them it was vital that Ireland shift its attitude towards sexuality. All democrats, along with gay men and women, rejoice in this victory, but what has caused this sea change in Irish society?

Éamon De Valera, architect of the current theocratic constitution, must be spinning in his grave. A 1916 republican leader, civil war oppositionist and founder of Fianna Fáil, De Valera was without doubt a religious zealot. He was determined to create a bastion of Catholicism. Given the opportunity to draw up a constitution to replace the 1922 Free State document, he immediately enlisted the aid of prominent clergymen - in particular his close ally, the notorious John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin and all-Ireland catholic primate. McQuaid ensured that the constitution was written to conform to strict Catholic doctrine, reflecting canon law on the family, education and social welfare issues.

De Valera, keen to win the authority of the pope, presented the draft to the Vatican for approval. It was only after he got the nod from Rome that he put it before the Irish electorate for rubber-stamping in a plebiscite on July 1 1937. The people were asked a single question: “Do you approve of the draft constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?” 56.5% voted ‘yes’ and holy Roman Ireland was born.

Fundamental to De Valera’s constitution was the safeguarding of the Catholic family. Article 41 asserts that the traditional family is the “natural, primary and fundamental unit group of society” and “a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law”. The primary place of women within the home is specifically enshrined and the constitution commits the state “to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. It will “guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded, and to protect it against attack”.

Long years of dark repression followed. McQuaid remained a shadowy figure in Irish politics right up to 1972. His long career mirrored that of De Valera, who served 19 years as taoiseach and a further 14 as president, finally retiring in 1973 at the age of 90. The church ran the state and the shame of being anything but a compliant, mass-going Catholic was enormous. Women who had children outside of marriage were ostracised, locked up in mother and baby homes and their children taken from them. It was impossible to be openly gay. Not only was it deemed unnatural and sinful, but it was a criminal offence until 1993.

Up to now most referendums on the role of the family have been aimed at strengthening the church’s influence. Thus the 8th amendment passed in 1983 institutionalised the “right to life of the unborn”, giving a foetus the same rights as a pregnant woman. Tens of thousands of Irish women travel abroad every year for an abortion or order illegal drugs over the internet to terminate their pregnancy. Those who cannot go abroad are forced to suffer an unwanted pregnancy. The constitution makes clear that this is the ‘natural’ order of things - women have to accept their lot and just get on with it.

Major shift

The campaign and the result of the referendum on May 22 reveals a major shift in attitudes on sexuality and morality. The revelation of the systematic abuse inflicted on men, women and children during the De Valera days and afterwards has caused the church’s standing to plummet. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, conceded that its teaching is not getting through. And the Vatican is appalled at the turn of events. The referendum result is apparently a “defeat for humanity”.

A comparison with the 1995 divorce referendum shows how much has changed in 20 years. Then article 21 was amended to allow divorce when a couple are separated for four out of five years. And, even though this was an extremely limited entitlement, it was won by a bare 9,000 votes. It was Dublin’s urban population that secured the result, pulling the rest of the country reluctantly behind it.

In 2015 it is a different story. Only one out of the 26 counties voted ‘no’ to same-sex marriage. Working class areas had the highest ‘yes’ votes, with Dublin South East registering 75% in favour and Cork North Central 64%. The ‘yes’ was also higher in areas where anti-water charges campaigns had been most active, showing that the result was not a vote of confidence in the government.

But that, of course, is exactly how the Fine Gael-Labour coalition is presenting it. Taoiseach Enda Kenny hopes to reverse his deep unpopularity over water charges and present himself as a modern, egalitarian leader, fit for the new millennium. Nothing could be further from the truth. His party agreed to accept the manifesto commitment of the Labour Party to this referendum in a deal which ensured his government an unassailable majority in the Dáil. It then tried to avoid discussing it until Enda Kenny’s clumsy attempts to dodge the issue threatened to cause even more embarrassment to the ailing administration. Then it was arranged that the youthful health minister, Leo Varadkar, would come out on national radio. Overnight the Fine Gael leaders reinvented themselves as staunch supporters of gay marriage. This caused a great deal of bitterness amongst the party’s lower ranking TDs. But the leadership ignored the gripes - it was determined to use the referendum to its advantage.

Even Fianna Fáil announced support for the ‘yes’ side. It seemed the whole establishment wanted change - at least officially. Fearing isolation, the church decided to allow the deeply reactionary Iona Institute to head up the well-funded ‘no’ campaign, while preaching fear and prejudice every Sunday from the pulpit. But there was even rebellion within the ranks of the clergy, with a number of parish priests announcing that they would be voting ‘yes’.


In the aftermath of the referendum the question of abortion rights is again on the agenda. Clare Daly TD has demanded a referendum on the 8th amendment on a number of occasions during the current Dáil. But every time she and other leftwing TDs have been voted down through the combined forces of all the mainstream parties, including Sinn Féin.

Having previously rejected the demand for a referendum on abortion, the Labour Party is now attempting to win back ground and has announced that it will include it in its manifesto for government. But such cynicism should not surprise us - Labour promised reform on abortion last time round and then came up with the totally inadequate and insulting Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Under this legislation women have to be assessed by a panel of psychiatrists to determine if they are truly suicidal and therefore entitled to an abortion. There is the risk of being confined to a psychiatric ward to be forced to go through with a pregnancy.

The only way to win real, thoroughgoing equality is to make the campaign for a new constitution a working class struggle. The connection between our political, social and economic rights must be brought together in a comprehensive programme. There have been various calls for a new republic, from the Right to Water campaign and others.

The working class in Ireland must lead the fight for its own republic. We must champion equal rights for all sections of society, and spell out what we need to become the ruling class. The Irish working class must promote democracy to take on capitalism.