Just the Facts – Same-Sex Marriage in Ireland and the EU

The Irish Government has committed to holding two referendums this year – the first on same-sex marriage and the second on reducing the age of candidates allowed to contest the presidential election from 35 to 21. Although the date has yet to be set, both referendums will take place in May.

This is our first Just the Facts article ahead of these referendums, in which we will look at Ireland’s position on these two issues within a European context.

Same-Sex Marriage in Ireland

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. Following this, equality legislation was introduced to make sure that citizens were not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, in terms of employment or service provision. In 2010, gay and lesbian relationships were recognised through civil partnerships following the passing of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010.

Civil marriage and religious marriage are not the same. Religious marriage is largely ceremonial, the civil part being the (legally binding) signing of the civil marriage register. A civil marriage, on the other hand, is held in a registry office or other approved venue and operates independently of any religion. There are in the region of 160 statutory differences between civil marriage and civil partnership. Some of these differences include the legally recognised relationship between parent and child, the right to certain social supports and the definition of the home (i.e. ‘shared home’ as opposed to ‘family home’).

In May of this year, Ireland will hold a referendum on same-sex marriage. This referendum marks the culmination of significant developments concerning the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Ireland over the last two decades. The people of Ireland will be asked to decide whether the following wording should be added to the Constitution: Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

As of 1 January 2015, 17 countries (Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and Uruguay) and certain sub-national jurisdictions (parts of Mexico and most states of the United States) around the world allow same-sex couples to marry. Regardless of the outcome in Ireland’s referendum, the vote will be historic as it is the first time any country has held a referendum on this issue.

Same-Sex Marriage in the EU

There is significant variation across the EU on same-sex marital legislation.

10 EU countries permit same-sex marriage: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (same-sex marriage is legal in the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland). Spain became the first predominantly Roman Catholic country to allow same-sex marriage in 2005 when they amended their civil code despite significant opposition from various sectors of society.

Seven EU countries – Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Ireland and Slovenia – have legislated for civil partnerships, while a further 11 – Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – forbid same-sex unions.

In general, the past several years have seen extraordinary progress in the advancements of anti-discriminatory laws for LGBT citizens across Europe. However, public opinion and legislative action across Europe has varied considerably concerning same-sex marriage. There is a notable east-west divide on the subject of same-sex marriage. Generally speaking, same-sex marriage is more widely accepted in Western Europe than in Central and Eastern Europe and candidate countries.

Recent developments reflect this: some Western European Member States have made proposals towards, or brought into existence, legislation legalising same-sex marriage while some Central European countries have actually made moves in the opposite direction. Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia, for example, have amended their constitutions to define marriage in absolute terms as being “between a man and a woman”. The conservative-religious component within many of these countries has been cited as the reason for an apparent regression in LGBT marital rights.

Most recently, on Saturday February 7 2015, Slovak conservative group Aliancia pre rodinu (Alliance for the Family) failed to reach the required threshold of voters to pass a referendum that would have strengthened the country’s constitutional ban on marriages and child adoptions by same-sex couples. The referendum had been strongly supported by the Catholic Church, yet voter turnout was markedly low at only 21.4%, far below the required threshold of 50%. 90% of those who did vote were in favour of strengthening the ban on same-sex marriage.

Croatia’s 2013 referendum to constitutionally define marriage as a union between a man and woman didn’t require a turnout threshold for the results to be valid. The turnout in Croatia was 37.9% with 65.87% returning a ‘yes’ vote.

Recent Legislative Proposals in Member States

Proposals have been brought forward in recent years in a number of EU Member States. Austria (in 2013) and Germany (in both 2012 and 2013) have both proposed legislation for same-sex marriage. Both German bills lost in a vote, despite the fact that the German parliament was generally perceived to be in favour of this legislation. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has declared that a bill to recognise same-sex relationships will reach the floor in 2015.

With regard to civil partnerships, France is seeking to extend its civil partnership legislation to French Polynesia. In Italy, the opposition proposed Civil Union and Cohabitation Bills during 2013; these are now at the committee stage of examination.

EU-Wide Mutual Recognition

One pertinent issue concerning same-sex marriage in the EU has been the mutual recognition of registered partnerships and same-sex marriages within the territory of the European Union. This has been cited as a barrier to freedom of movement within the EU for certain people. On 7 December 2010 the European Commission confirmed that this was part of their competencies. However, on 3 April 2014 the European Parliament criticised the Commission for failing to act upon a previous pledge to propose a new EU law to protect the free movement of all families. They issued a non-binding resolution on justice, freedom and security in Europe which placed significant emphasis upon the freedom of movement of all families. It is hoped by many civil society organisations that the European Commission will take this report into consideration when proposing future legislation.


This Just the Facts article is also available as an email information service from European Movement Ireland to our members.  For more information on becoming a member of European Movement Ireland, contact our offices or visit our Membership webpages.

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