By DANNY HAKIM and DOUGLAS DALBY for The New York Times
With early vote counts suggesting a comfortable victory, crowds began to fill the courtyard of Dublin Castle, a government complex that was once the center of British rule. By late morning, the leader of the opposition, David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, conceded the outcome on Twitter: “Congratulations to the Yes side. Well done.”
For older activists, the moment marked a profound evolution for their country. For the world, it suggested how far the gay rights movement has come, to make such a significant step in a country with a storied history as a religious stronghold.
“Throughout my youth, adolescence and young adulthood, it was a criminal offense to be gay,” said David Norris, a 70-year-old Irish senator and longtime activist.
He said he had faced “total isolation” as a young man.
“There was silence on the subject,” he said. “It wasn’t mentioned in the newspapers, it wasn’t mentioned in the broadcast media. Then there was a fear of criminal prosecution, of being involuntarily placed in a lunatic asylum, losing your job, being socially destroyed. It was a terrible situation.”
The referendum changes Ireland’s Constitution so that civil marriage between two people is now legal “without distinction as to their sex.” It requires ratification by both houses of the Irish Parliament and the president. Though that is a formality, the date when gay and lesbian couples can marry will be determined in that process.
There was support for the measure across the political spectrum, including from Prime Minister Kenny, of the center-right Fine Gael party, and his Labour coalition partner, which had pushed for the referendum. Sinn Fein, an opposition party, also expressed support.
Many placed the results in a national context, saying it pointed not only to change but also to the compassion and tolerance of the Irish people.
Alex White, the government’s minister for communications, said: “This didn’t change Ireland — it confirmed the change. We can no longer be regarded as the authoritarian state we once might have been perceived to be. This marks the true separation of church and state.”
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, said: “There are two Irelands, the elite Ireland and the hidden Ireland. And today the hidden Ireland spoke.”
Gay rights activists around the world had said a victory would be an important milestone.
“I think this is a moment that rebrands Ireland to a lot of folks around the world as a country not stuck in tradition but that has an inclusive tradition,” said Ty Cobb, the international director of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Late in the campaign, four Catholic bishops urged parishioners to vote against the measure. But as ballot boxes were opened one by one, and paper yes and no votes stacked up in front of counters at long tables in a cavernous hall, optimism among referendum supporters grew.
Campaigning on both sides of the debate had been underway for months, with posters, billboards and commercials. One opposition commercial said, “You should be able to have reservations about gay marriage without being called a homophobe,” while a commercial supporting same-sex marriage featured young people encouraging their parents to vote.
Thousands are believed to have returned to Ireland to take part in the vote; plane tickets from London Friday night sold out.
Ireland’s paradigm shift from a quasi theocracy to a leader on gay rights was the result of a sustained campaign by gay activists. They set up a network of support groups around the country and fused a grass-roots movement with aggressive social media outreach and a registration drive that brought in more than 100,000 new voters since last November. Tens of thousands of doors were knocked on, extensive leafleting campaigns took place and posters were ubiquitous.
“Commentators just don’t seem to have grasped that this has been the culmination of a 10-year campaign to change attitudes in this country,” said Colm O’Gorman, chief executive of Amnesty International (Ireland) and a leading gay rights campaigner.
Leaders on both sides tried to strike a conciliatory note, though they said some issues remain to be sorted out, from rules on surrogacy to the ability of religious groups to hew to their views.
“The personal stories of people’s own testimonies, as to their difficulties growing up being gay certainly struck a chord with people,” said Jim Walsh, an Irish senator who opposed the marriage referendum, during a television interview.
“I would like today to not get back into the arguments that we had during the campaign but to wish them well,” he said. “But I think that going forward we will need to address issues which are going to arise.”
In a news release, the Iona Institute congratulated the yes side for “a very professional campaign that in truth began long before the official campaign started.”
But it also said “we will continue to affirm the importance of the biological ties and of motherhood and fatherhood” and urged the government to “address the concerns voters on the No side have about the implications for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.”
Nick O’Connell, 42, who is from a rural area in County Kilkenny in the Irish Midlands, was cradling a celebratory drink in a Dublin bar, the Back Lounge. He said he had been too afraid to come out as gay until his mid-20s.
“Today I’m thinking of all those young people over the years who were bullied and committed suicide because of their sexuality. This vote was for them, too.”
He added: “This is different from other countries because it was the people who gave it to us, not a legislature.”
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