The Irish have become the first people in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum. It’s an astonishing statement about the pace of cultural change in a country where more than 80 percent of residents identify as Catholic. It’s also a hopeful development for gays and lesbians in other nations: Countries with strong religious opposition to homosexuality can evolve.
The Irish referendum is notable for another reason: It further erodes the original justification for partition between a Protestant majority in the north and a Catholic majority in the south. In the decade before the island was split in 1920, northern Protestants threatened to take up arms against the British government if it granted Ireland the kind of home-rule powers that many in Scotland now seek. Their opposition was rooted mostly in bigotry, but also suspicion: They believed, as many American Protestants at the time did, that Catholic politicians couldn’t be trusted to be independent of the Pope — and that, for Ireland, “home rule means Rome rule.”
They weren’t entirely wrong. The founding fathers of the Irish Free State created a quasi-theocracy, drawing up a constitution that referenced the holy trinity, accorded the Catholic Church a “special position,” outlawed divorce, and discouraged women from entering the workplace. The government created censorship boards that took their cues from the Vatican, banning books and movies. Buying or selling contraceptives was illegal.
William Butler Yeats, who belonged to a long tradition of Irish nationalists who were Protestant, foresaw the consequences: “If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North.” And so it was.
Friday’s vote is the culmination of events that have effectively ended that tradition. The Catholic Church’s “special position” was dropped from the Constitution nearly 40 years ago. Contraception has been legal since 1980; divorce, since 1996. The books once declared obscene are no longer banned. Abortion remains illegal, but the laws have loosened; the procedure is now legal for women facing risk of death or suicide. And even the Church itself is changing: Some Catholic priests announced they would be voting “yes” in the referendum.
In fact, it is no longer an exaggeration to call Irish laws freer from religion’s sway than those in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the U.K. where same-sex marriage remains illegal. The North’s leading nationalist (and largely Catholic) political party, Sinn Fein, pushed for legalization in 2013, but failed to overcome opposition from the two largest Protestant parties. The debate there has mirrored the one in the U.S., where evangelical Protestants form the bulk of the opposition to same-sex marriage. And as in the U.S., it may be the courts that force the government to recognize it.
Of course, there is little popular appetite on either side of the border even to talk about Irish reunification, given its association with violence and the unlikelihood of it coming to pass anytime soon. And in the short term, Friday’s referendum may intensify Unionist opposition to a united Ireland, if that’s possible. But if the line separating north from south is ever to be erased, and if Yeats’ brand of Protestant nationalism is ever to revive, an Irish government that is committed to secular equality and a strict separation of church and state is a necessary precondition — and one that the referendum helps achieve.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy. He previously served as director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.