Marriage for same-sex couples is legally recognized in 17 countries across the globe, as well as a number of U.S. states. On May 22, the Irish electorate will be asked to make world history: becoming the first country, ever, to pass a referendum where citizens democratically decide to guarantee same-sex marriage in its constitution.
The proposed amendment applies to Article 41 of the Irish Constitution. And it wants to insert the following line: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”
In layman’s terms, this means that a marriage between two people of the same sex would have identical rights under the Irish Constitution that a marriage between a man and a woman currently has.
Married couples of either the opposite sex, or the same sex, will thus be entitled to equal constitutional protection for families, if the amendment is passed.
For a state that was, up until the early 1990s, a de-facto theocracy, this is a pretty big deal.
The most recent Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll—which shows 53 percent of people in favor of same-sex marriage, 24 percent against, while 23 percent said they didn't know—is indicating that the Yes side is still on course for a victory.
The world’s largest Internet betting exchange, Betfair, have already paid out to those who backed the Yes side several weeks ago.
Those on the conservative-Christian right argue that the forthcoming proposed amendment will lead to catastrophic consequences for vulnerable children in the Irish State, claiming the family unit will be diminished as a result of its implementation.
However, this referendum also proposes something most commentators are failing to discuss with the analysis it deserves: the complete collapse of the old guard of archaic, socially-repressive Catholic institutions that have dominated Irish society since the Free State was formed in 1922.
Consequently, fear is the only weapon the No side has in its arsenal to try to persuade undecided voters.
Last month, I held a public debate in London with a conservative Irish journalist, John Waters, about the forthcoming referendum.
Waters said a “highly aggressive” Irish gay lobby had bullied a “cynical coalition government” into this referendum.
The journalist also warned that the new amendment would involve giving parenthood to “a category of humans that are intrinsically incapable of natural procreation” and said the biological connection between the parent and the child would no longer have meaning in the Irish Constitution.
Breda O’Brien, another journalist from the no side, has recently stated that: “Gays should abstain from sex—like all unmarried couples.”
Margaret Hickey, a spokeswoman for the organization Mothers and Fathers Matter, recently stated that should the amendment pass, “it will affect the moral education of [Irish] children.”
93 percent of all primary education in Ireland is still controlled by the Catholic Church.
In April 2014, the United Nations accused the Vatican of systemically adopting policies that enabled priests all over the globe to sexually abuse thousands of children.
Ireland was an exceptionally bad case, considering its small population.
But this freakish outbreak of sexual abuse was not coincidental.
Over the 20th century, the Catholic Church had an influence on Irish society that was on a similar scale to how the Bolsheviks shaped Russian society from 1917 to the end of the Cold War.
Any Irish citizen who dared to challenge the Church’s dogmatic heterodoxy—particularly its warped attitude to human sexuality—was faced with highly organized structural-institutional violence, social ostracism, and, in many cases, life imprisonment with hard labor.
Women, children, and the poor, suffered the most under these draconian, invisible laws.
What held this powerful clerical force together was The Irish Constitution.
It was enacted in 1937 by the conservative-Catholic visionary, and founder of the Fianna Fáil party, Eamon de Valera. And it placed the family unit as a sacred-central entity in Irish society.
The Constitution is a document that possesses many democratic strengths. It promoted the autonomy of a newly formed nation that was attempting to mould itself into an independent Republic, while simultaneously breaking free from the chains of British imperialism.
But the Constitution’s utopian-like references to family life became the official stamp on the hypocritical-pious Ireland that subsequently emerged. And the self-declared secular egalitarian Republic that was supposed to come about from the 1916 Revolution remained a distant pipe dream.
Highly undemocratic, tribal, and repressive, the Irish Free State, and the Republic that came after it, increasingly became dominated by clerics and bishops, who yielded the same kind of bizarre cultish-absolutism and thirst for power that was the central driving force of far-right European fascist parties from the 1920s till the end of the Second World War.
If the family was portrayed in the Irish Constitution as the perfect model to promote a simple agrarian society which valued love, affection, and human kindness—over say, a Metropolitan society primarily built on commerce and wealth—beneath the surface lay a form of totalitarian control that both the State and the Church continually fed off for decades.
In his critical analysis on the work of Franz Kafka—who wrote extensively on how bureaucracies deter humans from thinking for themselves as rational beings—fellow Czech writer Milan Kundera spoke about ‘family totalitarianism.’
Kundera argued that Kafka’s inspiration was not just, as many scholars have previously pointed out, totalitarian regimes: but the guilt that emerges from within family life itself.
The tyrannical paternal figures we see in the great works of Irish literature, including from John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, who grew up in De Valera’s Catholic Ireland, exemplify this with clarity.
Two of Ireland’s most prominent historians have written extensively about the rather strange connections in Irish society between the Catholic Church, the family, sex, and power.
Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 has written about how the pervasive patriarchalism of the Catholic Church was cemented by “the powerful familial bond asserted by the Irish family.”
Diarmaid Ferriter in Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland discussed how control of sexual relations was central to the creation and maintenance of power and the social order in Ireland by the Catholic Church.
It seems blindingly obvious, then, why the Church feel so threatened by a Constitutional amendment that radically redefines what the family unit will henceforth actually mean in relation to the Irish State.
Currently, the family is defined in the Irish Constitution as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.”
Thus the question on everybody’s lips in Ireland in the run-up to this referendum is as follows: Can two gay men or two gay women actually be defined under this category?
Technically speaking—and this is a fundamental point the No side keeps reiterating—two human beings who cannot biologically procreate, are a not a natural primary unit group of society.
But culturally speaking—and let’s remember, it is in fact culture, and not simply our primordial and biological impulses, which enables us as a species to make moral choices, to form relationships with bonds based on love, trust, and altruism—any two human beings who can love a child, regardless of their biological disposition, absolutely qualify as a natural primary and fundamental unit group of society.
The traditional family unit, as laid out in the Irish Constitution, has hitherto given the Catholic Church a kind of invisible wand to control the Irish population.
This may appear at first glance as a benevolent force that simply aims to promote a family-first culture at heart. But when the dusty clerical carpet is unravelled, what we see beneath its latent secrets and lies is a culture built on foundations of fear, hegemony and social control.
The Catholic Church is now so frightened of that definition of the family being eroded in Irish society that its warned its supporters that should the Irish Republic endorse marriage equality in the forthcoming referendum, religious organisations could face legal action for refusing to marry same-sex couples in their churches.
Eamon Martin, Primate of All Ireland, said this month that a Yes vote for marriage equality would end the proper meaning of marriage in the State.
Priests are being instructed by the Catholic hierarchy—should the amendment be passed—not to put their signature on the civil marriage register at the end of the ceremony: as they believe it to be morally wrong in the eyes of the Church.
In recent history, this method of scaremongering would have made Irish citizens listen to the men of cloth: promoting a dominant No vote arising out of fear and ignorance.
But even moderate Catholic conservatives now think the Church’s reactionary politics are behind the times: viewing the tyrannical institution as an out-of-touch old boy’s club, desperately grasping at its last vestiges of power.
Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, a devout Christian, who is also a staunch critic of the current Roman Catholic hierarchy, recently told Irish voters that same-sex marriage in Ireland is a “human rights issue” and would help dismantle the “architecture of homophobia.”
This soundbite from the former Irish President has been a huge push for the Yes side, particularly for those moderate Catholics who believe in egalitarian principles.
However, this issue doesn’t just come down to the usual cynical game of tactical voting blocks that, say, a general election operates on.
What this referendum represents is a seismic shift in the zeitgeist: progressive-modern-Ireland is finally breaking free from the shackles of a de-facto Catholic State that was unofficially run from Rome for decades.
Crucially, for the first time in the history of the Irish State, there is now a highly educated liberal majority who are not afraid of the Catholic Church, or its archaic world views: especially its nonsensical lectures on what free-thinking adults can or cannot get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms.
Listening to a celibate priest talk about sexual mores is a bit like asking someone who has never taken a drink to explain why they don’t like hangovers.
The changing of the old guard has already taken place. But the conservative-reactionary right-wing God-fearing minority have been too busy saying decades of the rosary, going on long retreats to Rome, Knock, or Lourdes, or defending an army of pedophile priests in court to protect their disastrous public image, to see this tumultuous transition has already happened without them.
When, not if, this marriage equality referendum is passed on May 22, the politics of hope will democratically destroy the politics of persecution, and the people of Ireland will collectively be endorsing a Constitutional amendment that promotes accepting each human being for what they are, and not what some imperialist religion—run from a corrupt, secret-walled state in Rome—says they should be.
On Friday morning, as the Irish electorate prepare to mark this epic historical, political, and civic occasion, the ghost of the voluptuous Molly Bloom will be heard echoing loudly in the polling stations across the country.
For her final soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses—“and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will”— will be a phrase that the country can sing together in unison: dreaming of a brighter and more tolerant future, both for themselves, and for posterity.