Ireland’s referendum on Friday will be the 34th and 35th time voters have been asked by their government for permission to amend the country’s 1937 Constitution.
Irish people are being asked two questions – to extend the right to marry to couples of the same sex, hence it is being called marriage equality – and reducing the minimum qualifying age at which one is allowed to contest presidential elections from 35 to 21.
It follows recommendations by the same Constitutional Convention which also urged limited voting rights be extended to Irish citizens living outside Ireland although the Irish government decided not to proceed with that one – for now, it says.
If the Irish government had simply tried to amend the country’s marriage laws – as happened in this country under the last Tory-Lib Dem coalition – it would have been breaching the Constitution, according to its own lawyers and legal advisors, and would have faced the prospect of the law being struck down by the Supreme court.
Although Ireland’s constitution does not recognise marriage as a valid union between people of the same sex, Ireland did change its laws in 2010, under the previous Fianna Fail-led government, to allow civil partnerships for gay couples.
If voters back the government’s call for a ‘yes’ vote there will be no more civil partnerships – although existing ones will remain valid – as Ireland’s marriage laws will cover everyone, heterosexual or homosexual, so long as they are eligible to marry.
Some on the ‘No’ campaign – which includes Ireland’s Catholic bishops although by no means all priests and nuns – have even argued that the prohibition on close relatives marrying would be rendered voided, supposedly because of the inability of those in same-sex unions to procreate.
In reality, by virtue of making marriage equal, same sex couples would be subject to the same restrictions and eligibility requirements as opposite sex couples.
A ‘Yes’ result will not redefine marriage, which will remain unchanged, it will just clearly specify that same sex couples can enter marriage and have the same status as married couples of the opposite sex.
The main difference given to same sex couples is that they will now have constitutional equality and not just the statutory legal protection the civil partnership gave them in 2010.
Irish High Court judge Kevin Cross pointed out that this legal protection can be taken away, amended, or reduced by an Act of the Oireachtas, while constitutional protection can only be taken away by a vote of the people.
People opposed to changing the law have insisted that it will put children at risk, change the definition of family and usher in a free-for-all in terms of surrogate pregnancies.
But the government and constitutional lawyers insist that the constitutional protections for the family under Article 41 will not change.
Nor could a ‘yes’ vote have any bearing on surrogacy services as they are unregulated in Ireland, and there is no legal right nor prohibition on people accessing them.
In terms of adoption Irish law already states that individuals and married couples have a right to apply to adopt, regardless of their sexual orientation, so a ‘yes’ vote would not change the rights of same-sex couples as they already have that right.
It is however a right to apply and not a right to adopt.
This referendum is solely about marriage equality for all people in Ireland.