Ireland Communities and society, Welfare and equalities

Case study: Eamon Gilmore and the fight for marriage equality in Ireland

Eamon Gilmore was the former Deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste) of Ireland and one of the driving forces behind the campaign for marriage equality in Ireland. As Leader of the Irish Labour Party, he led government in coalition with Fine Gael from 2011 to 2014 and oversaw the creation of a Constitutional Convention that led to the referendum that changed the definition of marriage in the Irish constitution, so that same-sex couples could marry. He was the most senior government figure to declare his support for same-sex marriage in 2012, and holding a referendum was a key manifesto promise of his in the previous general election. The referendum was held on 22nd May 2015, and was approved by 62% of the vote, with equal marriage becoming law in November of 2015.

Ireland was the first country to approve equal marriage by popular vote, as in most other countries this is done through governments and Parliaments. In Ireland, any change to the constitution must be ratified by a referendum, resulting in a number of referenda over the years on various issues including divorce, EU membership, the Good Friday Agreement and most recently, abortion. Only Irish citizens are eligible to vote in these referenda, resulting in many emigrants returning home to vote on issues they care strongly about.

LGBT organisations in Ireland began campaigning for a referendum on marriage equality in 2011, shortly before the election that led Gilmore to power. They were in favour of the idea of a Constitutional Convention that Gilmore suggested, which was established in 2012 to discuss proposed amendments to the Irish Constitution. It consisted of 100 members; two-thirds were randomly selected Irish citizens, and the other third were politicians (including representatives from Northern Irish political parties). They discussed a number of issues, including a marriage equality referendum, and 79% of members voted in favour of this. Following this, campaigners worked on laying the groundwork for the referendum campaign, and in November 2013 it was announced that the referendum would be held in 2015. Yes Equality was the official campaign for a “yes” vote, and focused on convincing undecided/floating voters (generally older) through poster campaigns and door-to-door canvassing. The core messages of the campaign were based on research done in both the US and Ireland, such as focus groups, and there were two months of committed campaigning in the run-up to the vote.

Gilmore played an important role in the campaign for equal marriage. Being at the forefront of the campaign as a senior politician was hugely important in progressing the issue along and putting forth a referendum. Ireland had always been behind the UK and other parts of the Western world on social issues – homosexuality itself was only decriminalised in 1993; and divorce was decriminalised in 1996. Ireland had had civil partnerships (instead of marriage) for same-sex couples from 2009; 5 years after the UK. However, over the latter decades of the 20th century and throughout the 21st so far, Ireland has become more liberal. In a speech made to the Central European University in 2017, Gilmore discussed these changes and attributed them to television, education, economic changes, EU membership and achieving peace in Northern Ireland. He also highlighted the importance of building blocks, and doing things one step at a time – for example, it was important to have civil partnerships before equal marriage. In this vein, he talked about how social change is multidimensional and different issues are always linked, and it is important to campaign for various issues over a long period of time. This can be seen in his own work with regards to the marriage equality referendum – he had been overtly expressing his support since 2011.

In this same speech, Gilmore discussed a number of implications that the marriage equality referendum had. He described it as an act of solidarity with oppressed LGBT people across the world, to show them that change and progress is possible. It encouraged campaigners to keep going – both campaigners for marriage equality in places such as Northern Ireland, and LGBT campaigners in Ireland for further rights and equality. And it was a display of courage – that the human rights of a group of people were put in the hands of the electorate and the electorate voted to give them those rights may not seem ethical to many outwith Ireland, but it was a truly courageous decision and result.

Gilmore’s work brought the issue of marriage equality to the forefront of both the political and societal spheres of Ireland, and he should be celebrated accordingly. Without him, the referendum may not have happened when it did, and Ireland could still today be fighting for marriage equality three years later.