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Ireland's Gay Marriage Referendum: Just a Little Further to Go?

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There was a bitterly cold wind sweeping across Dublin Bay last Tuesday afternoon, with dreary, grey skies and uninviting waters. Not too far inland, while the exterior of Buswell's Hotel suffered the winter weather, the atmosphere indoors was much warmer and more comfortable, as civil rights groups welcomed the Irish government's decision to call for a referendum on equal marriage for 2015.

In the small function room, where media, politicians and rights campaigners gathered and greeted each other warmly, the announcement was made that the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), campaign group MarriagEquality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties jointly welcomed the government's decision, which was made earlier that afternoon in Leinster House.

"The Government's acceptance of the Constitutional Convention recommendation is another historic step in the remarkable 20 year journey from gay law reform to full Constitutional equality for lesbian and gay people in Ireland," said Kieran Rose of GLEN. The sentiment expressed by MarriagEquality Chairwoman Gráinne Healy was much the same: "[L]esbian and gay couples and our families will finally be accepted as equal citizens in Irish law."

Indeed, such a positive (and somewhat relieved) reaction is to be expected from rights organizations, who have campaigned for years to see equal marriage legislation introduced in the Republic of Ireland, following other countries in Europe, not least the recent passing of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 in the United Kingdom. In another positive move, while the civil rights organizations praised the government's decision, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny finally came out -- so to speak -- in favor of gay marriage, ending his years of ambiguity on the issue. Kenny's announcement certainly supported the atmosphere felt in the function room, where "if" was never the important word of the marriage equality campaign, but "when."

Only days beforehand, however, Kenny had already strongly hinted that a referendum would not take place for yet another while, going against Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore's comments last June, predicting that it would take place in autumn 2014.

Why, therefore, has the Irish premier called to push back the matter yet again?

The answer: because he recently diagnosed the nation with a severe case of "referendum fatigue," recommending that the Irish avoid all referenda until 2015. This is slightly pointless, however, as the Irish will be visiting their local polling stations again either way next year, to vote in the local and European elections. The stress involved in voting -- which I'm not sure exists at all, as you walk in, tick a box and walk back out -- apparently only applies to referenda. How bizarre.

Regardless of the 2014 elections, it is surprising that Ireland's government has suddenly become concerned with fatigue levels (although one wonders how concerned those same leaders are of the country's dole queue or brain-drain fatigue). The Irish have taken to their political outings of referenda like they recently took to the Great British Bake Off; few actually take part, yet many pay attention and almost everyone has something to say about it, from the taxi driver to the housewife.

Indeed, as Gráinne Healy had mentioned, it seems that it is not the public who have referendum fatigue but the politicians. The fact that the only ones in the hotel function room not to laugh were the politicians... well, that gave an incredible weight to Healy's joke.

Nevertheless, the Irish have been presented with yet another announcement from Leinster House that the people will need to vote on marriage equality in the near future. I, for one, hope that this new "near" future is indeed real, and not some sort of political mirage.

A version of this blog post was first published in EILE Magazine on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.