On The Irish Referendum: The Majority Cannot Vote On Minority Rights

Ronan Marron argues that the majority cannot vote on the rights of minorities in a national referendum. Credits: Fionacii Blue

Ronan Marron argues that the majority cannot vote on the rights of minorities in a national referendum. Credits: Fionacii Blue

I am an Irish citizen and a gay man. At the moment, I am waiting with baited breath to find out if I will be allowed to get married in my home country. I am optimistic about the outcome. I have faith that the population of Ireland will vote for progress. As a nation, we have come a long way since 1990, when divorce was not permitted and homosexuality was still criminalized. I think we will take the next step on this road, as I do not believe that a country which still denies basic rights to its minorities can truly call itself civilised.

There was a very powerful television advert as part of the campaign, which in fact inspired an American version. It showed a man calling various different houses and asking if he could have a woman’s hand in marriage. The message was simple. It begged heterosexuals to imagine the unimaginable: that the fate of their individual marriages rested not just on their own decision, but instead on that of every voter in the country. My potential future marriage does not affect anyone, aside from me, the person I am marrying, our possible children and perhaps, indirectly, a handful of others. For me, there is a grave indignity in giving millions of people a choice in whether I get married. It is a basic human right that two people who are in love may get married. We should not see people in the civilised world holding referenda on the basic human rights of minorities.

I wonder what will happen if a ‘No’ vote is returned in the upcoming referendum. If I want a real marriage that places me on an equal footing with my heterosexual counterparts, I will be forced to get married in a different country. That is not an option for everyone. A ‘No’ vote is a real possibility, and the decision will probably be binding for decades

The response that is often given to this argument, is that this is what happens in a democracy, and democracy is not contestable. This assumes that the will of the majority is always right – an assumption that is simply not true. The majority can in fact be gravely mistaken. Hitler was democratically elected and yet very few would argue that that lent legitimacy to his later actions.

Democracy is the best system of government available, but there must be limits to the decision making power of the democratic masses. For me, this means that the majority should not have the right to deny basic human rights to a minority. There are many things that we would not even let a majority government do, and yet for some reason, democratic persecution of the LGBT+ community is still commonplace. We are still denied human rights in democracies across the world.

There are dangerous nuances in using a referendum for this decision. The demographics indicate that a ‘Yes’ vote is most popular among those least likely to vote, young voters. This means that a ‘No’ vote is perfectly possible, even given majority public support for the referendum. This is how democracy works, and these failings can prove dangerous when the rights of a minority are on the line.

The fact that the Irish constitution can only be changed by way of a referendum adds another layer of complexity to the situation. It means that there is no other currently existing mechanism by which same-sex marriage can be legalised. I guess all I can do is just hope that a ‘Yes’ vote is returned. The fact that I must hope for what I should rightly be guaranteed is a bitter pill to swallow.

The only positive of a referendum is that if there is a ‘Yes’ vote, the fact that the nation voted for it will make the subsequent same-sex marriage legislation much less contestable. Certainly a silver lining, nevertheless a thin one. We in the LGBT+ community should not have to beg the general population to grant us our human rights like it is a perk or a favour. Like all basic rights it should be enshrined as above the contestation of the majority.

An article by Michael Angland on the coming Irish referendum was previously published on the Get Real. website defending a nationwide referendum.

Ronan Marron (GR. Comment Contributor)


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