Ireland: from Conservative Country to Liberal Society

January 20, 2017

“We are a country that knows how to party but I have never experienced a party like the one we had on May 23, 2015,” said Eamon Gilmore during a public lecture at the CEU School of Public Policy (SPP) on January 19. Gilmore, who is the EU Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process, former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Ireland, and a George Soros Visiting Practitioner Chair at SPP this term, made his remarks before a distinguished audience that included Irish Ambassador Pat Kelly. During his address, Gilmore recounted the long path that Ireland traveled from 1921, when it achieved its independence, to May 2015 when it became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Gilmore explained that the Catholic Church dominated the early history of Ireland. “There was a lot of state deference to the church,” he said. He went on to note that “this wasn’t all bad” pointing to the many good schools and hospitals that the Catholic Church had set up and managed. The influence of the Catholic Church did make Ireland an especially conservative country though especially when it came to social issues. Gradually and in an ad hoc manner, a Liberal Agenda emerged in Ireland that called for equality of women, contraception, divorce, LGBTI rights, and abortion. The Liberal Agenda was led most notably by Mary Robinson, who has held many prominent positions in Ireland and internationally including serving as Ireland’s first female president between 1990 and 1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002.

Gilmore stressed that there was a lot of public resistance to the Liberal Agenda especially initially and that “it was slow getting this done.” He spoke also about some of the failures along the way such as the defeat of the 1986 referendum on divorce. Although the opinion polls prior to the referendum showed that it would pass 2:1 in favor, it was defeated 2:1 against. Gilmore remembered that he and others became concerned in the days leading up to the 1986 referendum as they heard more and more from members of the public who were worried about how legalizing divorce would affect issues like, for example, which parent would get custody of the children, and how pensions would be awarded and who would inherit property when someone had been married more than once. “The lesson I learned,” said Gilmore, “was that you had to take care of the details before you called for a public referendum.” And so he and others worked on the “details” for the next ten years before going “back to the people.” The second referendum legalizing divorce in Ireland passed in 1995, but only by a slim margin: 50.28% “for” and 49.72% “against.”

The LGBTI rights leader in Ireland is Senator David Norris, a Senator and lawyer, who has championed these issues since the mid-1980s. It was not until the 2000s that LGBTI rights become a campaign issue. In 2012, Gilmore gave a speech in which he called same-sex marriage “the civil rights issue of this generation.” He was widely criticized at the time – including by some people in his own Labour Party. Remembering the lesson he had learned when pushing for the referendum to legalize divorce, Gilmore and others worked to pass legislation that addressed issues related to children, adoption, and family relationships before introducing a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage.

Gilmore said that Ireland had changed in many ways in the decades leading up to the May 2015 vote. He identified many reasons for this change: a more open and growing economy; the influence of television; a “massive expansion” of education; the diminishing influence of the Catholic Church, partly as a result of the sex abuse scandals; Ireland’s membership of the EU in 1973; the role of the European Court of Human Rights; the toleration that grew in Ireland during the peace process with Northern Ireland; growing support for the Liberal Agenda; and smart and effective campaigning. Eamon Gilmore; photo: SPP/Zoltan Tuba

Gilmore spoke also about the role of the family in Ireland and explained that those who opposed the Liberal Agenda had traditionally done so by “wrapping themselves in family values.” Gilmore said that the people he met leading up to the 2015 referendum were concerned about their families as well. What they stressed though was how important it was to them that no member of their family be treated less fairly than any other member. “Big Irish families were all going out to vote because they wanted fairness for a member of their family or of their neighbor’s family,” he remembered. Gilmore said that the mobilization of young people was also critical to the success of the 2015 referendum.

Gilmore noted that same-sex marriage is still a very contentious issue worldwide. There is strong division in the UN on this issue as well: while 96 countries have signed a statement supporting LGBTI rights, 54 countries have signed a different statement opposing LGBTI rights. Gilmore said that the experience in Ireland showed that change is possible. It showed also that “social change like this is multi-dimensional” and that it requires prolonged campaigning – and personal courage.

Gilmore ended his remarks by reflecting on the current status of the Liberal Agenda, which he said was in retreat. “We liberals are great at moving forward and seeking change. We are very bad when we have to travel in reverse gear. That’s where we are now,” Gilmore said. “We need to come to terms with what it means to defend what we have gained.”

In response to questions from the audience, Gilmore cited economic insecurity as the primary reason for the threat to the Liberal Agenda – and to Open Society. “We haven’t developed a social framework appropriate to the modern economy in which we are living,” he said. Gilmore said that economic issues – including issues of economic inequality – must be addressed.