Melanie McDonagh

Ireland’s gay marriage vote was never an equal contest

Ireland's gay marriage vote was never an equal contest
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In more ways than one it’s impossible to be heard above the din right now in the wake of the Yes vote in Ireland on gay marriage. There’s a special noise that goes with an orgy of self-congratulation, a roar of mutual approbation, and it drowned everything else out in Dublin as the results came in today. Like rugby, only more triumphalist. Actually, I was watching the scene from the Sky studio in Millbank, where my interlocutor in central Dublin, Patrick Strudwick, a journalist and activist, was appearing on a screen on the streets and had to shout over the crowd to make himself heard, to repeat, over and over again, 'It’s a victory for love, for equality, for human rights'.

Mind you he did go off piste sufficiently to declare that I was a bitter loser and a bigot (I was expressing concern that the family courts would be influenced by the vote when it came to decisions on the guardianship and custody of children). Oh and that this was a victory over the forces of the Catholic Church because no one would ever listen to them again on account of the cover ups of the clerical child abuse scandals. As a summary of the sentiments and subtlety of the Yes campaign it was, I’d say, bang on.

I suppose it is possible that the vote would have been quite as conclusive – roughly 60:40 – if the debate had not been both staggeringly one-sided and the Yes campaign had not been bankrolled so overwhelmingly by US pressure groups. Certainly the youth vote would have gone that way anyway. Brendan O'Neill has already brilliantly described the groupthink that has informed the 'national conversation' as it’s politely known, and if you want a flavour of the exclusionary character of that conversation, why, I can only refer you to the Irish Times website where the balance of pro and anti gay marriage was, so far as I can make out, in the order of 98:2. Most readers would have been left guessing as to the motives that could possibly have inspired the 40 per cent who summoned up the nerve to vote No in the privacy of the ballot box.

But one of its in-house dissidents – the impression of balance is desirable – is Breda O'Brien, a Catholic commentator, who rather put the cat among the pigeons with a piece on 9 May on the funding for the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) and other lobby groups by a US organisation called Atlantic Philanthropies. The striking thing about the donations was not just their size - $4.7 million to Glen in 2005-11, nearly $475,000 to Marriage Equality; some $11.5 million to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, 2001-213 – but that they refer to years before the referendum debate got under way. I can’t wait to see the actual figures for the campaign itself. By comparison the No campaign got by, I gather, on a shoestring budget of about 200,000 euros.

So when friends of mine found that when they entered a shopping centre in Limerick by one entrance on Thursday and left from the other, they were bombarded with leaflets from the Yes campaign, there was a reason for it besides spontaneous enthusiasm. One side could afford a PR campaign; the other couldn’t, though the papers heroically made the most of the tiny-by-comparison sums that US Christians put the way of the No campaign. The motives of Google for entering the fray are probably similar to those that made it take sides on the issue in the US; the referendum was on Friday, and you couldn’t open their bloody homepage without being told it was in favour of marriage equality.

I know one of the shy No voters, actually: a friend of mine whose devotion to the Fine Gael party can only be described as quasi religious but was viscerally opposed to the amendment and who didn’t actually hand out a single leaflet on the No side, because, as he put it simply; 'I’d be expelled from the party'. The parliamentary debate was whipped, even though it wasn’t actually in the manifestos of the main parties other than Labour, whose idea it was in the first place. Oh and that goes for Sinn Fein too, that beacon of progressive, liberal values north and south of the border.

And do keep an eye on the situation in Northern Ireland which has been described as the last outpost of homophobia in the British isles. It has held out against gay marriage in the UK but that is being subjected to a legal challenge by an English gay couple who are demanding that their marriage be recognised there. The DUP has so far fought off Sinn Fein bids to pass gay marriage legislatively in Northern Ireland – do you suppose they take supporters who are a) Catholic and b) from south of the Pale?

The one-sidedness of the debate – sorry, the national conversation – in the papers deserves pondering. I mean God knows there was obviously a liberal consensus for gay marriage in Britain, though none of the parties had the sheer nerve to whip a conscience issue through the Commons. It was however more nuanced simply because conservatives in Britain include some of the best and bolshiest journalists around and there is genuinely some kind of pluralism in the papers – the Mail can give the Guardian as good as it gets. But in Ireland, the groupthink has a totalitarian aspect to it. I remember meeting one young Irish girl at Oxford a few years ago who declared bathetically that she had given up on the Catholic Church in favour of the Guardian; in a way, the whole country feels as if it has gone the same way. There’s a creepily imitative quality to the liberal consensus – as though the colonial mindset has morphed through clericalism to a self-congratulatory adolescence, perpetually in revolt against the vanished authority of the church. The Irish Times declared in its editorial that this vote represented the country Ireland had become. Yes it does, and not wholly in a good way.