How economic prosperity led Ireland to overturn centuries of conservatism with same-sex marriage vote

Voters in the Republic of Ireland took part in a referendum on legalising same-sex marriage (Source: Getty)
Before the tide of euphoria passes, it is worth thinking back a moment on what the overwhelming vote in Ireland in favour of same-sex marriage actually means. This traditional, close-knit country, dominated for centuries by the socially conservative Catholic Church, seems at first glance an unlikely location for global social advances. Yet by approving a referendum on same-sex marriage by an overwhelming two to one, Ireland became the first nation to support this until-recently divisive issue by popular vote. What is going on?

In the referendum’s immediate aftermath, the usual suspects were trotted out: the result was a referendum on the Church, with its monstrous child sex abuse scandals (with many incidents reported in Ireland itself) behind it. Or it was simply a vote heralding the passing of time. The winning Yes campaign made much of the fact that families would merely be voting for the rights of their relatives and friends; almost everyone in Ireland now knows someone who is openly gay (itself a social advance); why should their rights be abridged?

This is all true, yet we think it lacks one basic element which – as much as anything else – explains Ireland’s seemingly startling verdict: economic prosperity set the course for Ireland’s sea change.

Tolerance of others, especially those we perceive as different, requires that we feel secure about ourselves. If we are confident in who we are, we have little fear that we will be hurt or diminished by mere contact with someone who is unlike us, or with whom we disagree. Often referred to as ego strength, this capacity also contributes to empathy – recognising someone else’s plight and extending aid without fear of compromising oneself. Not surprisingly, in the modern world, this psychological strength (or its lack) has a strong economic correlation. For example, it is no coincidence that the squeezed German lower middle class of the early 1930s were bedrock supporters of Hitler, as economic fear drove them to accept a hideously intolerant ideology.

This ironically neo-Marxian argument finds its echoes in the tragedy of the US south. There, the post-Civil War power structure hinged on race being seen as more important than class. Politically threatened white plantation owners managed to convince poor whites (who then swelled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan) that they were being economically challenged by poor blacks, and that this must not be allowed to happen.

Ironically, poor whites and blacks had far more in common with each other than either did with ruling rich whites. But this focus on race, instead of class, was nurtured by the general economic stagnation that characterised southern life for a full century following the American Civil War. Poor southern whites simply could not escape the economic insecurity that dogged their very existence. When southern economic levels began to catch up with the rest of the country – and catalysed specifically by the monumental bravery and eloquence of Dr Martin Luther King and his followers – southern attitudes about race at last began to change. But the economic elixir should not be neglected as a major contributor to this decisive shift.

In Ireland, a similar process has driven the epochal shift. As little as a generation ago, Ireland was a poor, agrarian, largely feudal country, with a corresponding reputation as a bastion of social conservatism. Then the heady years of the Celtic Tiger blew in, transforming the nation into a prosperous, modern, and above all (given its huge reliance on trade) outward-looking place.

Even the recent shock collapse in the wake of the global economic crisis has not managed to keep Ireland down. Alone among the countries requiring a bailout, Ireland has quickly (though with real social sacrifice) soared again, resuming its place as an economically successful country, almost phoenix-like.

It is this broader economic context that has been missing from much of the post-referendum analysis, one whose human underpinnings get to the heart of social change. Joy and love unshared are wasted. Ireland has now both the economic and psychological security to allow these precious attributes to be shared by gay people within the blessed structure of marriage. Love, as John Lennon said, really is the answer.

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