Comment: Same-sex marriage is coming to Northern Ireland

Ballot boxes are emptied in Dublin for counting of votes in the referendum on same-sex marriage.The support for the proposal south of the border will come north of the border too. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ballot boxes are emptied in Dublin for counting of votes in the referendum on same-sex marriage.The support for the proposal south of the border will come north of the border too. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There is a simple reason why same-sex marriage is coming to Northern Ireland – public opinion.

If there is not already majority support for the move (I suspect there is now a clear majority in favour) in the Province, there will be soon.

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

This is because young people right across the western world, including Northern Ireland, have a different view of this matter to older people.

The under-40s are very pro gay marriage and the under-25s overwhelmingly so. The over-65s are heavily against.

You might think: ‘ah, but when young people age they too will become conservative’.

In general that is so, but not on this issue. Older people have actually become more liberal on gay rights. In the Republic, 30 per cent of over-65s voted Yes. I would guess that two per cent of them would have supported same-sex marriage when they were young 50 years ago. The very notion would have sounded comical.

Not long after I began my exit poll on Friday, at Haggardstown west of Dundalk, I realised the result would be Yes. Why? Because even a large minority of older people were telling me they had voted in favour. When asked why, several had been persuaded by their children or even grandchildren.

I wondered if the fact that the ‘won’t says’ were mainly older was because they were quietly anti (I got 13 won’t says, 34 Yes, and 20 No). But in numerous past exit polls I have found older people more reluctant to talk about how they vote and to consider it private.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Friday’s vote: it demolishes any idea of Rome Rule in the south.

I was seven when the Pope toured Ireland in 1979 but remember it well because as a boy I was amazed at the notion of a million people in Phoenix Park. As an adult I am amazed for another reason – the church had such a grip that one papal event drew a million people when the population of the Republic was only three million. Friday was an unprecedented rebuff of Catholic leaders by the south.

The vote will exacerbate the simmering divide in the Church of Ireland. It also poses big challenges for unionists. Danny Kinahan, the only UUP or DUP MLA to back gay marriage, defeated a fundamentalist in a conservative-ish seat. He read the runes well (as did President Obama in 2008 and David Cameron later).

My suspicion had been that Jim Wells’ comments would do the DUP little harm, and might even get some supporters to the polls. But during my exit poll in East Belfast, when Naomi Long polled well, some wavering voters cited his comments as having made them go against voting DUP.

Unionist politicians have long been markedly more religious than their voters. Regular churchgoers have been a minority of Protestants for at least two decades. Yet no unionist MLA admits to atheism (as the unionist commentator Alex Kane does).

In 1990, unionist fear of embracing a widespread secular outlook was apparent when the DUP-dominated Castlereagh council put to referendum Sunday opening of leisure centres. It passed 13,000 to 2,600.

But the DUP has a major dilemma. It faces an electoral trend away from religious morality, but it cannot just discard its Christian heritage. One elderly (presumably Catholic) woman in Dundalk told me she would vote DUP in Northern Ireland on moral matters. She knew she was talking to a reporter from a unionist paper so such comments need handling with caution, but even so.

If the DUP liberalises, such Catholic voters can only turn TUV, which is emphatic on traditional Christian morality – but they won’t, given the latter’s staunch loyalism.

It again makes me wonder about a Christian party run by people such as Peter Lynas, of the Evangelical Alliance.

News Letter Dundalk exit poll
Gerry Adams votes in referendum