The same-sex marriage referendum has transformed Ireland before it’s even begun

The Guardian – Sunday 17 May 2015 15.04 BST Last modified on Monday 18 May 2015 08.29 BST

Una Mullally

As a gay Irish woman, the campaign for equal rights has tested me to breaking point. But it has also been a time of wonderful solidarity

Rally in support of same-sex marriage in Dublin

‘For the yes campaign, the final week before the referendum on same-sex marriage is about galvanising support.’ Photograph: Robin English/Demotix/Corbis

Last week, Ursula Halligan, the well-known and much liked political editor of TV3, came out in the Irish Times. Halligan wrote that she had been resigned to going to her grave with the secret of being gay, until the referendum campaign for same-sex marriage in Ireland began.

If carried this Friday, Ireland will be the first country in the world to pass marriage rights for same-sex couples by popular vote. “For me, there was no first kiss; no engagement party; no wedding,” wrote Halligan. “And up until a short time ago no hope of any of these things. Now, at the age of 54, in a (hopefully) different Ireland, I wish I had broken out of my prison cell a long time ago.”

The yes campaign has largely been fought with personal stories. I recently wrote my Irish Times column about how I had stuttered while naming my girlfriend as next of kin in hospital, while being diagnosed with stage three cancer in March. For me, the referendum is the most important thing to happen in my lifetime in Ireland. A yes vote would mean being equal to my brother and my sisters, and finally accepted as such in Irish society. A no vote is almost too devastating to imagine.

The referendum has been divisive in debate, but unifying in people power
Ireland’s most respected columnist, Fintan O’Toole, has also drawn on his personal life to advocate a yes vote. Last week he wrote about the vasectomy he had 25 years ago, and how, given his marriage is no longer “open to life”, his union falls down on what the no campaign holds up as an ideal.

O’Toole cut to the heart of the no campaign’s problem. With posters saying “children deserve a mother and a father”, they have not just offended gay people, but also single parents, unmarried parents, people who were adopted, and so on. “In order to find an apparent principle on which it can reasonably deny equality to gay men and lesbians,” O’Toole wrote of the no campaign, “it has to tell huge numbers of other people that their relationships are just not up to scratch.”

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For the yes campaign, this final week is about galvanising support. And the no campaign is also throwing everything they have at it. At masses around Ireland over the weekend, letters were read out from bishops arguing against a yes vote. The no campaign has fought personal stories with abstract arguments, and become increasingly hardened in its messaging. Its latest poster reads: “Two men can’t replace a mother’s love.”

The referendum has been divisive in debate, but unifying in people power. On Saturday, the yes camp saw crowds of people canvassing across the country. Fundraising concerts and club nights have pulled in thousands of euros. The yes campaign is buoyed by support from children’s charities and an almost endless stream of unexpected voices, including Irish football captain Robbie Keane and the epitome of genteel rural Ireland, singer Daniel O’Donnell.

But there is anxiety as well as optimism. “Look at what happened in England,” came a warning to canvassers, called down a driveway by a woman in the suburbs of Dublin last week. Where Britain had shy Tories, campaigners here wonder about shy no voters.

The latest newspaper polls show between 53% and 67% in support of a yes vote. The Irish Times poll showed the yes side at 58%, no at 25%, and undecideds at 17%. Excluding those undecideds, the yes side is at 70% and no at 30%. As comfortable as it might look, that call down the driveway echoes. Polling for referendums is notoriously unreliable here. Six months before Ireland held a referendum allowing for divorce in 1995, support for a yes vote was at nearly 72%. The referendum passed by 0.6%.

Everything rests on those who say they support the issue turning out to vote. For me and many other gay people, the campaign has tested us almost to breaking point. But it has also been a time of wonderful solidarity. Whatever the outcome, there has been a real and irrevocable change in Irish society.

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