The resounding yes victory in the referendum last Friday means that Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve same sex marriage by a national vote. Many other countries – and a number of states in the U.S. – have introduced same sex marriage through court rulings or by parliamentary vote.
But Ireland, one of the last places you might have expected this to happen, has taken the decision to allow same sex marriage by a public vote.
This puts us ahead of everyone else, and it is something to be proud of because for so long we have been a conservative Catholic country where the diktat of the church on political and social issues had been decisive. It is, after all, only 22 years since homosexual acts were decriminalized here. This referendum decision suggests that we have now entered a new era with a new young generation which makes up its own mind.
Much of the credit for the yes victory has been given to these younger voters who turned out in their tens of thousands. The last two referendums in Ireland had turnouts below 40 percent. This one had a turnout of 60 percent.
The difference, according to party experts in polling stations around the country, was the number of younger voters who appeared, many of whom don't bother to vote in elections but made a big point of turning out for this referendum.
The extent of this gathering groundswell for the yes side among young voters was missed by the opinion polls which in the final weeks of the campaign had shown a downward trend for the yes side, with support falling from 70 percent to 60 percent in the polls with more than a week to go. The trend suggested that a no victory, while still unlikely, was possible.
In the event, it turned out to be a comfortable yes victory. What the polls appear to have missed was the sheer number of younger voters who had become fired up by the issue and who were fiercely determined to bring about change and voted in unprecedented numbers on referendum day.
What got the young voters so fired up? Firstly, there was the issue itself. The new generation has none of the fear or embarrassment felt by the older generation about people who are gay.
They saw the proposal as a simple matter of fairness and equality, one whose time had come. These days in Ireland among the younger generation the old attitude to gay people has largely gone, and everyone is related to someone who is gay or knows someone who is gay. Among this younger generation, the denial of marriage to their gay friends was ridiculous and outrageous and had to be corrected.
Secondly, there was the brilliant campaign for change run by the yes side. Having already got all the political parties and the media on board in recent years, first for civil partnership and then for marriage equality, the yes side then turned their campaign into a crusade with armies of young campaigners to knock on doors, flash mob type events, colorful street demos and posters that outnumbered the no side by a factor of at least 10 to one.
And this was not something that happened overnight: it was a deliberate campaign which began as far back as 2005. A campaign of this magnitude and sophistication takes a lot of resources, and the yes side had that thanks to the millions of dollars it received from Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies over the years.
On that score it should be noted that a recent story on IrishCentral headlined "American groups accused of funding both sides in gay marriage vote" was misleading, since it implied that the yes and no sides had received a similar amount of funding from the U.S.
The fact is that since 2005 Atlantic Philanthropies put at least $5 million and possibly up to $15 million into various organizations here backing marriage equality, first to get civil partnership and then civil marriage for same sex couples. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in Washington, which was mentioned in the IrishCentral story, did encourage people to donate to the no side in the referendum but the amounts involved were tiny in comparison, an estimated total of €200,000 ($218,000).
Funding on a massive scale like that from Atlantic Philanthropies is a very questionable level of outside interference in the Irish democratic process, and it is not a welcome development. Given that all the political parties and the media were supportive of the yes side, this got very little attention during the campaign. But you can be sure there would have been a national outcry if a similar amount of outside funding had been put into the No side in recent years.
Whatever your view on the American money, there is no doubt that it was a major factor in recent years in preparing public opinion in Ireland for last week's referendum. The result was that during the campaign rational argument was replaced by a highly emotional crusade by zealous young people impatient with any opposition to change.
This allowed the yes side to reduce the debate to one of a simple question of "equality" for all Irish people. The concerns of the no side about the wider implications of the proposed change were dismissed as scare-mongering by conservative Catholics, the "old" Ireland.
No doubt there were many people who fitted this description on the no side. But there was also a group of prominent lawyers and a few senior newspaper commentators, among other notable figures, who were brave enough to question the rush to make this change to the Constitution.
Unusually, there had been no government paper setting out the need for the referendum, or even much advance public discussion on the proposal which seemed to come out of the blue.
In fact, this was just one of 18 proposed referendums suggested two years ago by the Convention on the Constitution, and it appears to have been favored because it suited the Labour Party, which is badly in need of a lift among liberal and younger voters.
None of this is to suggest that the issue of "marriage equality" did not deserve attention, although there is little or no difference between this change and the recently introduced civil partnership for same sex couples on tax, pensions, property rights, inheritance, welfare and almost everything else. The main difference appears to be in the name.
Even on the more sensitive issue of adoption, the new Children and Family Relationships law allows same sex partners who have lived together for three years to adopt on exactly the same basis as opposite sex couples. Previously, same sex couples were able to adopt, but only one partner was registered as the parent. So on this issue there appears to be little or no difference either.
As well as plaudits from around the world from everyone from Ban Ki-moon to J.K. Rowling, the result of the referendum brought an outpouring of emotion and euphoria from the gay community here and from their families and friends. The atmosphere in the yard at Dublin Castle where a few thousand people gathered to hear the result was like Mardi Gras, with hordes of young people in ecstasy, celebrating like we had just won the World Cup.
But behind this wave of euphoria, there is still the fact that although 1.2 million people voted yes, over 700,000 people voted no, putting the no side on just under 38 percent of the people who voted.
That is a very significant minority, and it would be unfair to suggest that they all voted no simply because they are conservative or old-fashioned. Many of them had genuine concerns.
Among these concerns was the idea of giving equal status to same sex and opposite sex marriage in the Constitution, since many of these voters genuinely believe that opposite sex couples are the ideal combination for bringing up children. Of course no voters knew that these days many children are brought up by single parents. But there is a difference between that "accidental" situation and enshrining in the Constitution one in which children are deliberately brought up by same sex couples.
As the yes side put forward, there is a wealth of recent research which shows that the gender of parents is less important than the love and security they provide in a home. But there is also a wealth of research going back many decades which indicates that the best home situation for a child is one which has both a father and a mother.
One of the problems with this referendum change is that it is an absolute. It does not include any room for an objection in conscience.
So in future anyone who is putting up a child for adoption, or an adoption agency, will not be able to express a preference that the child be raised by an opposite sex couple. Equally, junior school textbooks and classes dealing with marriage and children will in future have to reflect the new wider definition of family in the Constitution, even if this is against the wishes of some parents.
And there are other areas where there is likely to be disagreement, with the potential for court cases along the lines of the recent one in Northern Ireland involving a bakery run by committed Christians which refused to put a “support gay marriage” slogan on a cake.
There is also no law here yet on surrogacy, which is likely to be a route to having a family which will be used by some male couples in the future.
The problem for many no voters was that giving absolute equality on marriage to gay couples meant restricting their own rights. It's always like that, of course, in situations like this. But there could have been a wider and more considered approach taken in this referendum – giving more rights to children, for example – which could have lessened the fears of many no voters.
The orgy of self-congratulation that some campaigners here have been indulging in over the past few days does not mean much. Yes we are the first country in the world to have a popular vote in favor of gay marriage.
Does that mean we are the most liberal, wonderful, admirable people on the planet? Far from it.
Today, like every other day, at least a dozen Irish women will make the lonely journey to the U.K. to have an abortion because they cannot have one at home thanks to our Constitution. Maybe we should have another referendum about that.