They are certainly not the first to legalise Same Sex Marriage and to equate such a union with traditional marriage, but they are the first to put it to their people via a Referendum.
What people do not see though, is the actual bravery and progressive nature of those who have voted YES (and by all accounts the YES camp has won a relatively comfortable victory).
Let me explain. Ireland is a very staunchly Roman Catholic country (85% of people would identify themselves as Catholic), with the church still retaining a lot more power and influence than most other developed nations permit. The Catholic Church would be very against Same Sex Marriage in their churches, but have largely kept relatively silent whilst the nation decides. Certainly priests have urged for a NO vote, but the Catholic Church as a whole has not applied the pressure they could have, preferring to allow the people to decide, whilst silently grumbling about the future of marriage within the Church being threatened.
Make no mistake about it, this Referendum is damaging to the Catholic Church and their influence over the people of Ireland, but they are pragmatic enough to know that it could be even more damaging to them if they push the people too hard.
Ireland still retains the link between everyday life and their church, with local parish priests wielding a lot of influence over their congregation. The local priest still visits parishioners at their home and you only have to see how people react to them, in this situation, to see this influence. The priest still holds sway over people, but the numbers regularly attending mass have dwindled significantly, suggesting that whilst identifying themselves as ‘Catholic’ the majority in Ireland do not actually attend Mass regularly anymore. In fact, in the mid 1980’s, it was reported that 90% of Irish Catholics regularly attended Mass. This number dwindled badly during the scandal-rife 1990’s and 2000’s, with a much reduced 18% being reported in 2011.
The reduction in Mass attendances aside though, the influence a priest has in Ireland is unrivalled elsewhere in the EU, and it really takes soul searching for the average person to vote against their express wishes. The average citizen in Ireland still retains their deeply imbedded Catholic roots, whether they attend Mass or not.
So, a brave decision by the majority who have voted YES in this landmark referendum and an even more impressive result, given their deeply in-grained religious belief.
How does this equate to the Ashers decision in Northern Ireland?
Ashers Bakery were convicted of discrimination against Gay Activist Gareth Lee last week in a Belfast Court. This decision was welcomed by the majority of LGBT supporters North of the Border, but heavily criticised by Church and Political leaders who felt it was an injustice against their religious belief.
Whilst I’d personally be a supporter of Equality for anyone from the LGBT community, I’m still of the opinion that this case reached an incorrect conclusion.
Ashers did not discriminate against Mr Lee because he was Gay – they simply refused to bake a cake advocating Same Sex Marriage, which flew in the face of their deeply-held religious belief and is actually still illegal in Northern Ireland (though I suspect not for too much longer).
“It turns out the customer is always right, and that a business has no discretion in deciding what goods it supplies.”
Peter Lynas, Director of Evangelical Alliance, NI
The Ashers decision will be debated across the Province for a long time to come and will have far-reaching implications for small businesses with all of the current political divide still inherent throughout the population. Whether Ashers will take their case to Appeal still remains to be seen, but certainly it does nothing positive for the LGBT ‘cause’ in Northern Ireland at all. Those who see the Ashers case as a militancy on the part of Gay Activists, those who hold the religious belief that Same Sex Marriage is wrong, those who still retain some of their homophobic tendencies passed through generations and those who will use any effort to bring a Bill to Stormont as an issue to separate them from their political enemies will all dig their heels in even further as a result of the Ashers decision, gaining political capital from this obviously controversial case.
I’d certainly be vehement in my support of Ashers in this case, seeing their rights being trampled over by what certainly looks like injustice. That said, I’m also a strong supporter of Equality for anyone currently discriminated against simply because they belong to the LGBT community. Some may see the two as opposing views – but I am comfortable that my support of Ashers Bakery (the best scone-makers in Northern Ireland by the way) is purely on the basis that they did not agree with the message on the proposed cake, not that they discriminated against Mr Lee himself.
Northern Ireland will have to progress and make some effort to bring Equality to their increasing LGBT community in the very near future. The strength displayed by the voters in the Republic will certainly be a positive influence, but the Ashers case will provide fodder as it is mis-used by those campaigning against Same Sex Marriage.
Being born and raised in Northern Ireland, I hope my fellow countrymen can show the same strength as those South of the Border and progress the Province towards some semblance of Equality, allowing those in the LGBT community to feel they have the same rights as those who would consider themselves more ‘traditional’.
Equality in Northern Ireland has faced many dilemnas in the past Century, but surely we can be progressive enough to afford it to the LGBT community?