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Irish vote could be a green light for a social revolution worldwide

Jubilant scenes from Ireland’s ‘Yes’ cohort after a referendum victory that is echoing around the world. AAP/Aiden Crawley

On Friday May 22, out of an electorate of over 3.2 million voters, 60.5% of the Irish population turned up to polling stations across the country and voted by an overwhelming majority for same-sex marriage. With a 62.07% Yes vote to 37.93% voting No, Ireland became the first country in the world to hold a referendum on marriage equality.


Jubilant scenes were found all across Ireland as the result was announced. Media organisations across the world gave coverage to the historic event.

Commenting on the vote, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny said:

… we have disclosed who we are: a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.

Legal recognition

The impact of Ireland’s response is getting attention from all around the world. Will the result create a “social revolution” as some are suggesting?

Across the world, same-sex marriage is legal in 20 countries: The Netherlands (2000), Belgium (2003), Canada (2005), Spain (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway (2009), Sweden (2009), Argentina (2010), Iceland (2010), Portugal (2010), Denmark (2012), Brazil (2013), England and Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Luxembourg (2014), Scotland (2014), Finland (signed 2015, effective 2017) and Ireland (2015).

Both Mexico and the United States allow same-sex marriage but only in certain jurisdictions. In the United States, same-sex marriage is legal in 37 states.

In April 2015, the US Supreme Court started hearing arguments on whether the banning of same-sex marriage in some states is constitutional. Decisions to challenges from four states are expected by the end of June. These states are Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Illegal to be gay

While there is a significant marriage equality shift, it is illegal to be gay in 79 countries.


In Uganda, it is illegal to be homosexual and punishable by a jail sentence. In 2014, Uganda’s constitutional court annulled the controversial Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 (previously known as the “Kill the Gays Bill)”, which legislated for life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” and banned the “promotion of homosexuality”. The Guardian recently reported that new laws are being planned to reintroduce the ban.

In 2014 the Sultan of Brunei announced the country would introduce Sharia law in three phases. As part of this, in 2016, the country is planning to introduce executions, including stoning for “offences” such as homosexuality and sodomy.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an 1861 colonial-era law, comes with a 10-year sentence for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal”. In 2009, the courts removed the ban. However, the law was reimposed in 2013. The Indian Supreme Court ruled that it was struck down improperly by a lower court and only the parliament could amend the law.

What about Australia?

Polling has been consistent in showing a growing support for marriage equality in Australia with current levels at 72%. Australian politicians were quick to respond to Ireland’s referendum result.

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have stressed their opposition to holding a referendum. However, a number of Australian senators have advocated a referendum. The Australian reported Liberal Senator Zed Seselja and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, despite opposing any change, want the matter to be put to the people.

Lobby groups opposed to marriage equality, such as the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Marriage Forum (AMF), were quick to issue press releases criticising Ireland’s referendum results. The AMF said that Ireland had “abandoned her children” and had “written a social suicide note”.

Recent media reports suggest the numbers are almost there in Australia for marriage equality legislation to be passed as a number of private members bills are due to come through parliament.

As was the case in Ireland, many members have reflected on the issue and changed their view. The most recent are former deputy prime minister Wayne Swan and former minister and manager of opposition business Tony Burke. Swan noted it was “increasingly difficult” for him to reconcile his views.

Recognising the diverse views on both sides, Abbott said that within his family:

I’m probably the last holdout for the traditional position.

A green beacon

According to social media mapping, the Irish result has already created an impact. As the Yes result was becoming clear, the historic event was being discussed across the globe via Twitter in many locations where homosexuality is illegal.

As current Irish Health Minister Leo Varadkar eloquently summarised:

We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world of liberty and equality.

The Irish campaign and subsequent result has given a significant boost to the campaign for marriage equality globally. The social revolution that will flow from the result will be fascinating to track.

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