The Republic of Ireland voted strongly in favour of legalising same sex marriage in a referendum held on 22 May 2015, in which more than 3.2 million people cast their vote. Ireland is the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote.
In a country where 84 percent of the population is Catholic, the overwhelming sentiment in favour of same-sex marriage made the referendum especially significant. The voter turnout was estimated to be between 50 and 60 percent.
The central issue of the referendum was about equality and to give people the “opportunity to live a life with the person that they love. It is as simple as that,” said a supporter of same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Church’s once dominant role in Irish politics and society today stands greatly diminished, and the overwhelming popular endorsement for gay civil marriage will further erode its influence.
Several priests voted in the referendum in favour of legalising gay marriage, according to Irish media reports, despite the well-known position of the Church. It is perhaps in view of the strong popular support for gay rights that the Church has been circumspect in its opposition to the referendum, and refrained from telling its supporters how to vote.
Despite a significant move forward on gay rights, Ireland remains stubbornly conservative and unchanging on the issue of abortion. Earlier in 2015, a proposal to change the abortion law to legalise terminations in fatal foetal abnormality cases was rejected by the Irish parliament.
A minor change in the abortion law was effected after the death of Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year old Indian dentist who died of septicemia in an Irish hospital in 2012, a week after her request for an abortion was turned down. After that incident, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced, which allows abortion if the mother’s life is threatened during pregnancy.