Lessons to learn from marriage referendum

“Love requires an engagement of the head as well as the heart”, writes Senator Rónán Mullen

Some weeks ago I met an old teacher whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. Now in her late seventies, she had moved house from where I thought she lived. I was delighted to be invited into her home. Several holy images in her kitchen and living room told of deep faith. Our chat turned to current affairs. I mentioned that I’d been in Dublin, doing a television programme about the marriage referendum. “And what way are you voting, Rónán?” she asked. I said I was on the ‘no’ side. “A ‘no’ vote, Rónán? she wondered. “They are as God made them, you know!”

I took that experience with me throughout the campaign. ‘Yes’ voters came in many forms – family of gay people, gay people themselves (not all), people angry at the Church who thought the old law reflected a baneful religious influence, people who think marriage is just a public affirmation of two people’s love, younger voters who thought it was all about equality and nothing else, and so on. But how many people were voting ‘yes’ out of – as they saw it – simple Christian charity?

We can easily disagree with such a conclusion. Love requires an engagement of the head as well as the heart. Showing respect for gay people’s equality shouldn’t mean denying the true meaning of marriage or the importance of both fathers and mothers for children. We can say, respectfully, that those voters got it wrong.

We can learn many things from the campaign. First, it isn’t only the Church that, in Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s words, needs a ‘reality check’. Our culture needs to rediscover what marriage really means. There’s nothing to contradict the fundamental intuition of the ‘no’ side that no good comes of failing to promote marriage between men and women or of breaking the genetic link between children and their biological parents.

Second, those of us who believe in ‘old marriage’ must open up to new ideas. For example, do we need a new word to re-present what used to be meant by ‘marriage’, now that the Irish Constitution understands the word in a different way? Matrimony? Covenant? Whatever emerges, promoters of ‘old marriage’ must find new ways to communicate its value. Many teenagers and young adults are overwhelmed by the media and the minds of their peers. They have come to believe the old distinctions are bigoted. “All a child needs is love, granny!” one young acquaintance of mine announced to his relative.

Will he change his mind when he has children of his own? Not unless he is challenged by a different set of ideas and feelings both respectful and credible. The ambassadors of those new ideas must go ‘under the radar’ of dominant culture. They’ll have to be strong on personal networking and social media. Their adeptness at the written word will be less important.

Rónán Mullen is an Independent Senator for the National University of Ireland (NUI) Constituency.


Money in  millions

The ‘yes’ campaign triumphed not because of anything they did in recent weeks. They won the battle over a period of years, using a supportive media to break down people’s reserve about gay marriage.

Tens of millions of dollars came from Atlantic Philanthropies, and were spent long before the campaign began. Full-time activists operated a range of organisations promoting gay equality. They have been transforming our culture successfully for several years. Nothing like this ever happened before.

If we want to restore the public’s understanding of marriage, we must do something similar. Hard to imagine but absolutely necessary.


It didn’t take abortion campaigners long after the referendum result to announce a fresh assault on Article 40.3.3. of our Constitution protecting the unborn. Many of these people think liberalism on gay marriage must surely mean greater support for abortion.

I’d like them to have met a gay man I know, a ‘yes’ voter in the recent referendum, whom I saw wearing a tee-shirt at a protest outside Leinster House in 2013. The tee-shirt belonged to the Pro-Life Campaign and he was standing in solidarity against the Government’s abortion legislation. There are thousands more like him, people who defy labelling as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. They see protecting the unborn as the human rights issue of our time. They will be active in any future struggle, though not on the side some abortion proponents think.