By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries
Irish voters backed same-sex marriage by a landslide in a referendum marking a dramatic social shift in the traditionally Catholic country, government ministers and opponents of the bill said on Saturday.
Final results were not expected until around 5 pm (1600 GMT), but ministers predicted Ireland had become the first country to adopt same-sex marriage via a popular vote, by a margin of around two-to-one, just two decades after it decriminalised homosexuality.
With over a third of the results in, all 17 of the 43 voting areas to declare had backed gay marriage.
‘Yes’ supporters embraced, cried, cheered and waved rainbow flags as they watched the results displayed live on a large screen in the blistering sunshine outside Dublin Castle.
One lesbian senator proposed to her partner live on national television.
“This has really touched a nerve in Ireland,” Equality Minister Aodhan O’Riordain said. “It’s a very strong message to every LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) young person in Ireland and every LGBT young person in the world.”
Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who revealed he was gay in a radio interview in January, said the referendum resembled a “social revolution.”
After Irish expatriates flocked home to vote, turnout looked likely to be the highest in a referendum for decades.
“This is a big placard from the people of Ireland to the rest of the world saying this is the way forward,” said David Norris, who began a campaign for gay rights in the late 1970s.
The proposal was backed by all political parties, championed by big employers and endorsed by celebrities, all hoping it would mark a transformation in a country that was long regarded as one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.
Only a third of the country backed the decriminalisation of gay sex for men over 17 in 1993, according to a poll at the time. When voters narrowly legalised divorce in 1995, only five of the 30 constituencies outside Dublin backed the proposal.
The Catholic Church, whose dominance of Irish politics collapsed in the wake of a series of child sex abuse scandals in the early 1990s, still teaches that homosexual activity is a sin. But it limited its ‘No’ campaigning to sermons to its remaining flock.
Instead, lay groups led the opposition by raising concerns over parenthood and surrogacy rights for gay couples. They conceded defeat minutes after the first ballot boxes were opened.
“It changes everything, the worries and fears I had as a young gay kid in Ireland, they’re all gone,” said Ger O’Keefe, 27, a ‘Yes’ campaigner from Waterford.
“This will tell kids now that you don’t need to be afraid.”