Ireland's Break with Tradition
In supporting marriage equality, Ireland rejected the conservative structures that have shaped the country for centuries.
The 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall, directed by the British socialist Ken Loach, tells the story of Jimmy Gralton, who in the 1930s led the precursor to the Communist Party of Ireland. Gralton and others gave lectures and held dances at the hall in a poor rural townland — until, at the behest of the local Catholic Church, it was violently shut down and Gralton was deported to the United States.
The movie highlights a longstanding feature of Irish society: the country’s citizens are more progressive than the country’s Church hierarchy would like to admit or portray to the outside world.
A similar dynamic was on display last week, when the Irish people voted in droves and by wide margins to legalize gay marriage — the first country to do so by popular referendum. While all four major political parties supported the measure, the 62 percent “yes” vote demonstrates a rejection of the fundamentally conservative structures that have shaped Irish lives for centuries.
The vote should also be seen in the context of the protest politics that have swept Ireland and Europe. In Ireland, a groundswell has emerged to fight a water tax, as well as austerity more broadly. The press outside these countries has repeatedly described such developments as “shocking.” But what these events demonstrate is that the political and economic institutions across Europe have wholly failed in addressing the needs and desires of their people. On the ground in Ireland, this has been obvious for some time.
While the extent to which Ireland is traditionally Catholic at the level of the individual has often been overstated, it is difficult to exaggerate the level of control the Church has exerted over Irish society. For much of the twentieth century, it was a more powerful institution than the young Irish state. In many parts of the country, the parish priest was a more important figure than the local political representative.
And any party who wanted to win political office had to curry favor with the Church and adopt its attitudes regarding sexuality, contraception, reproductive rights, and so on. While loopholes existed, it was illegal to buy condoms without a prescription until 1985. Abortion is still banned under the republic’s constitution, with an exception only for when the mother’s life is threatened.
But this has been coming apart. In the 1990s, a number of high-profile cases revealed the systemic extent of child abuse within the Irish Catholic Church, as well as the protection offending priests were accorded by the Church hierarchy. By the time an inquiry report was published in 2009, the Church had lost much of its credibility. In endorsing a “yes” vote in last week’s referendum, the four major political parties acknowledged the changes that are taking place in Irish society.
The Catholic Church that today regards the referendum as an “unmitigated disaster” is the same church that supported the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, that has threatened politicians with excommunication should they support abortion reforms. Many have said that long before the British colonization of Ireland, it was colonized by the Catholic Church. Friday’s vote was a rejection of that colonialism.
When the European troika — the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank — provided the Irish government with a bailout in 2010 to shore up the banking sector, the strings attached effectively transferred economic sovereignty from Dublin to its European creditors. The Irish, like the Greeks and Spaniards, have had little say over the austerity policies that have ravaged their countries. Last week’s marriage equality vote was an assertion of sovereignty, of the right of Irish people to govern their own lives, in a country where the idea has been under attack by European finance capital.
The two social groups that came out strongest for marriage equality are the same that have been hardest hit in recent years: the young and the working class. Some of the strongest “yes” vote tallies were in the most working-class areas of Dublin and Limerick, with margins as high as 90 percent. Yes campaigner Gráinne Healy told the Irish Times that “when we were out canvassing in areas like Finglas, there was an overwhelming Yes on the doorsteps. Once we moved into Glasnevin, there would be more resistance. It seemed the houses with two cars and plenty of money were just less open to Yes.”
The collapse of the Irish housing and lending markets in 2008, and the subsequent creation of a sovereign debt crisis, austerity policies, and widespread unemployment drove people to leave the country en masse. One of the most poignant images last week was the sight of those same young people — whose economic and political system had utterly failed them — boarding planes, trains, and boats to come home to vote. It is unclear just how many young people made the trip back, but the hashtag #hometovote caught fire across Twitter and Facebook, adding to the feeling that there was something truly special about what was happening.
And the speed at which LGBTQ people in Ireland have won marriage equality is truly astonishing. Consider that there are people in their forties having state-sanctioned marriage this week who in their twenties could have been prosecuted — homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993.
Still, lost in all the headlines about “Ireland voting for marriage equality” is the reality that there are many gay people living north of the border, in Northern Ireland, that still cannot wed. Northern Ireland is now the last place in Ireland or the United Kingdom where LGBTQ people cannot have a state-sanctioned marriage.
In the Belfast-based Stormont government, where power is shared between the predominantly Catholic (and more left-leaning) Sinn Fein government and the hard-right (and predominantly Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the conservative Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster still wields considerable influence. The DUP recently tabled Indiana-style legislation that would protect those who discriminate against LGBTQ people in private businesses. It will be a challenge for Sinn Fein, which has supported LGBTQ rights on both sides of the border, to bridge this southern-northern gap.
In the coming year, Irish left will need to pivot from victory in the marriage equality referendum to other struggles, like the fight for reproductive and transgender rights. As Paul Murphy — a teachta dála (member of parliament) for the Anti-Austerity Alliance party — put it on Monday, “The traditional hiding place of the establishment behind a supposedly conservative silent majority no longer exists.”
The marriage referendum and the movement against water charges have tapped into anger about the conservative control of water, of love, of the most basic aspects of people’s lives. Traditionally marginalized social classes are now mobilized in a way that few could have predicted at the last election. The challenge for the Irish left will be to build on this, expanding and deepening that popular mobilization.