Of rights and referendums: Ireland votes – Junior Sikabwe

18/08/2013-NEWS-The 5th Annual Marriage Equality March campaigning for equal rights for same sex couples photographed outside City Hall where they gathered before marching to the Department of Justice, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin.Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/IRISH TIMES

The same-sex referendum that took place in Ireland yesterday is very significant. This is not just because 84.16% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. It’s not because of the matter either: seventeen countries (eleven of which are European) have fully legalized gay marriage. And it’s certainly not because Colin Farrell is having a twitter showdown with the Archbishop of Dublin. The votes are currently being counted, and, if the law does come to pass, Ireland will be the first country to legalize same-sex marriage via referendum.

Ross Bannon, a columnist at The Independent, spoke of his experience canvassing Irish people to vote in favour of this referendum, and the undecided “[treated] the referendum like some constitutional game of X Factor.” And herein lies the problem with yesterday’s vote: populism. Indeed, the majority is deciding upon the rights of a minority disheartened by the current social and political climate. And while the prospects of a ‘yes’ vote look bright, the issue lies not in homophobia or religious idolatry, but rather in the manner in which the country chooses to determine what constitutes a right.

At the heart of this referendum is a grim reminder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform of 1988, led by Irish senator David Norris, which was responsible for a ruling that ultimately ended in the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The main point of contention was that Irish laws were in conflict with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, from which entailed the right to privacy (Norris v. Ireland). And even so, it wasn’t until 1993 – following a coalition between Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party – that reform action was finally taken by the government.

Indeed, issues of national concern (claiming independence from a larger nation or from a supranational body such as the EU, or choosing a new national anthem) are features of representative democracy, and should be decided by all. But depending on the rest of a population to decide the rights of a certain group of people is wrong for two reasons:

  • Incalculable as well as unpractical: Once a vote is held at a referendum, a concern which would otherwise appear to be a non-issue fuels massive debate, polarizing opinion and creating potential divide among party lines.
  • Contrary to the democratic legislative process: Making the state of Alabama vote in the mid-1800s over the status of slavery would probably yield a broad consensus – but not necessarily a democratic one.

The focus of this referendum should then not be the outcome, but the referendum itself, and the government’s role in actively reforming socio-economic legislation.

RU member & LYMEC IMS Denmark’s Junior Sikabwe is the proud owner of J. Consulting, Consultant at Business France and President of the DanMUN society. He is from France but currently lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

One comment

  1. I think Junior is making an excellent point here! The referendum was something that was rather celebrated (Ireland the first country in the world to arrange this via referendum!) but as Junior points out, that is perhaps not something to celebrate at all. We now know the happy outcome, but that does not take away the strong argument against using a referendum to arrange the rights of a minority. Something to keep in mind when other countries will go down this path!

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