Voters in Ireland are expected to decide on May 22 whether to accept gay marriage in what campaigners have called a monumental referendum.
Rights groups supporting the proposed reform to the Republic’s constitution said the announcement of the date for polling marks a countdown to equality for all citizens of the country.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Thursday night revealed the preferred date for the vote with opinion polls suggesting a majority were in favour of the reform.
Campaigners launched their push for support in earnest on Friday with calls for people to save the date and for them to personally ask their family, friends and extended network to vote.
Grainne Healy, chairperson of the Marriage Equality group, said all loving couples should be free to unite using the same commitment.
“Marriage is important to Irish society, it’s a secure foundation for committed and loving couples. Everyone should be free to marry on those terms,” she said.
“A yes in this referendum is a yes to lesbian and gay people being full participants in Irish society, and fully equal in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Every single vote counts in this referendum, not one person can be complacent.”
Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the Republic until 1993 and in 2011 gay people were given the right to commit to civil partnerships and register partnerships signed outside the country.
Leo Varadkar, Health Minister, announced last month that he is gay, becoming the first openly gay Irish cabinet minister in the history of the state.
He said he went public to avoid accusations that his private life may colour his judgment when campaigning on issues such as gay marriage or a separate reform to lift the ban on gay men donating blood.
The marriage referendum is by no means a foregone conclusion with some religious groups against the idea and a suggestion that the 80% figure of support in opinion polls could be easily diminished.
Kieran Rose, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, said the constitutional reform of marriage was about granting full citizenship to lesbian and gay people.
“The referendum, if carried, will complete the remarkable 25-year journey to constitutional equality for lesbian and gay people in Ireland,” he said.
“The proposed wording would ensure that existing marriages and future marriages of men and women are not altered in any way; it would extend civil marriage to now include lesbian and gay couples.”
Mark Kelly, director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said: “Irish people are being given a chance to create an Ireland where our citizens are valued equally.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for first time voters and the established electorate to end the discrimination which many lesbian and gay people living in Ireland continue to experience.”
The marriage referendum will take place after new legislation is brought in on family law dealing with issues such as guardianship, access, custody, maintenance and the rights of unmarried fathers.
There are concerns the two issues may be clouded and the government has rejected claims that it was rushing new laws to separate them from a potentially contentious debate on the same-sex marriage referendum.
Surrogacy issues are not dealt with in the new family law legislation but it is designed to give grandparents or other relatives easier access to children if a relationship between parents breaks down or to apply for custody if a parent abdicates responsibility.
There are also provisions for rights of children being parented by same-sex couples and children who have been born through donor-assisted human reproduction.
It does not grant unmarried fathers automatic guardianship rights to their children.