Interpreting the results of Ireland’s 2015 marriage referendum

I think we go too far in calling the results tabulated the 23rd of May, 2015, as “overwhelming” or “resounding”[1]. The difference between the majority of roughly 62% and the minority of roughly 38% is about 24%. That is a mere quarter of the electorate that cast their vote. Put it another way, we would do well to remember that 734,300 people said No to equality.

The electoral constituencies[2] do not map evenly to the counties[3] of the Republic of Ireland but I have totted up some averages by giving all constituencies and parts of constituencies equal population weighting. This has led to discrepancies in the counties of Kerry, Limerick and Leitrim here. I doubt the discrepancies are large but they exist nonetheless and I will re-run the averages properly at a later date. Provisionally we’ve got the results I’ve screen-grabbed and placed at the end of this post (hint: scroll down). The spreadsheet I used is also linked to below[4].

As has been pointed out, the only constituency to return a majority No was Roscommon – South Leitrim. This caused Roscommon to trend on Twitter[5] (for the first time ever in all likelihood). The taunts and jibes were as lame as they were predictable. Taking into account that Donegal South-West voted in favour by a stylish 33 persons (about the amount you’d pack into a Bundoran chipper) and the ratio in Cavan – Monaghan was 50.65% to 49.35% it’s not like the sentiment in Roscommon – South Leitrim was markedly at variance from its neighbours. This has been already pointed out by at least one pundit[6]. Besides, in a democracy to vote against the wishes of the majority is not to vote wrongly. We are meant to respect differences of opinion, not pillory them.

As you can see below the provinces of Connacht and Ulster were almost uniformly the least in favour of the amendment to the constitution. With one exception, county Galway in Connacht. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the discrepancy. Galway city is a major urban centre, a major university town[7], a vibrant and multicultural place. Anyone who has spent any time in Galway city would have predicted that the constituency that included the city would be more in favour of this amendment than its neighbours. And so we see that Galway East polled at 53.28% in favour – in line with, say, Mayo at 52.02%. This is in contrast to Galway West[8] (which includes Galway city) which polled at 61.50% and is more similar to Limerick city at 64.15% than its neighbour.

Indeed, if you factor in population density the three least densely populated counties (in order, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon) placed in the bottom six of the table and the five least densely populated counties (adding Kerry and Donegal) placed in the bottom ten. This tells us that there is a marked rural/urban divide on social issues if we needed convincing of this at all. It explains why the Munster counties of Cork, Waterford, Clare, and Limerick placed far higher than Tipperary or Kerry. Clare does seem to be a bit of an anomaly here with a low population density but I think this may be due to Ennis being quite a large urban centre in a large sparsely populated county, Ennis is nearly as large as Navan in county Meath and Bray on the east coast. It could also just be that Clare people are really gay.

If you view positive attitudes towards equality as a good thing then the concerns of the No voters ought to be addressed. Here are some of the reasons I’ve encountered.

  1. I’m against the redefinition of marriage
  2. I’m against the institution of marriage itself
  3. I believe it’ll lead to a marked increase in commercial surrogacy
  4. I don’t believe that referendums should be used to assign or take away rights
  5. I’m against the change on religious grounds

These concerns can be dealt with individually and will cause the 734,300 number to slowly decrease. Legislation should appease those who hold position 3. Whilst I agree with position 4 I figure it’s a done deal now and that voting No is too blunt a method for expressing this concern, abstaining would be the better method. The same applies for position 2 whereas here deliberately spoiling your vote in a way that catches the eye might be more appropriate. I think that the teaching of philosophy in secondary schools[9] will go towards helping erode dogma wherever it rears its head – this is something I feel strongly about and it’s something that the Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times[10] has written about with a nod of the head to our own Dr Vittorio Bufacchi here in University College Cork. This, in the long run, should sway some of those who might take position 5. Position 1 is a genuine position I believe, but the majority disagree, they feel that the category of marriage can be expanded to include same-sex unions. Those who believe otherwise will shuffle off their mortal coils as we all must and all newborns will be born into a world where the definition and practice of marriage includes same-sex unions, they will know no other way except through historic retelling.

But really what the analysis shows though is that there is a social imperative in creating a large urban centre ex nihilo somewhere in the West Midlands. This is a radical idea but hear me out.

Probably make it somewhere new as I’m sure no existing town would agree to such a radical altering of its identity. Probably along the current N4 and with the M4 extended to join the new urban centre to Dublin. And when I say large, I mean large. Between 250,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. A city to challenge Dublin on the world stage in some respects, as this country of ours has grown very imbalanced, I think most would acknowledge this. I picture this being the second city of the Republic of Ireland, a place to construct a modern vision of an urban Ireland. A new university town. A new university hospital. A new national stadium. An olympic-sized swimming pool. A new theatre and gallery complex. A live music venue. The works. Locate it along the existing Dublin-Sligo rail corridor. Locate it by or near a lake on the Shannon. Either build a new airport or construct a direct and quick link to Galway airport or some other existing aerodrome close by, expanding as necessary. I realise that this may sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea but it’s been done before in Ireland and abroad[11] to varying degrees of success and so is not without precedent. Something like Adamstown[12] but an order of magnitude larger with at least 100,000 residential units and the social amenities this implies. And if the result of the referendum shows us anything it is that we can imagine into being a different reality. Something along the lines of what Calatrava has done for Valencia. For energy tap into the Corrib gas field and renegotiate the existing deal with Shell which is a rubbish deal for the State anyway, anybody with eyes in their head can see this. Build an incinerator and maybe even *shock* a nuclear power station (located near the Shannon for its water needs). Within two generations social attitudes in provincial Ireland will shift dramatically, to be more in line with attitudes in Munster and Leinster. Invite our emigrants back to help us build it. Invite those fleeing conflict and strife to help build it. Some of those invited may disagree with the views held by the majority of secular Ireland but so be it, we are a mature pluralist republic now.

And finally, speaking of secularism, I think it should be obvious to anyone that the referendum result shows that the Catholic Church has lost its grip on Ireland’s flock. Though 84% in Ireland still profess to hold the Catholic faith these people clearly follow their conscience and not the instruction of the Church[13]. Attendance has dropped from 90% in the mid nineteen-eighties to 18% nowadays. In fact, as we have recently seen even Church operatives, such as Donegal priest Fr Brian O’Fearraigh[14], fail to follow dogma and some have come out as gay[15].

Set aside for a moment the historic precedent of becoming the first country in the world to legalize same-sex unions by popular vote. Set aside also the simultaneous shrugging off of the “Conservative Catholic Ireland” mantle. A take home point from this referendum is the disenfranchisement of huge swathes of rural or provincial Ireland. Somehow this disenfranchisement must be tackled. I have suggested one radical way.

[1] Ireland has left tolerance behind, by Fintan O’Toole

[2] Thirty-fourth amendment of the constitution (marriage equality) bill 2015

[3] List of Irish counties by population

[4] Marriage referendum spreadsheet

[5] Roscommon trending

[6] Roscommon / South Leitrim: bold child or ‘Deliverance’ country

[7] National University of Ireland, Galway

[8] Map of Irish constituencies and how they voted in the 2015 referendum

[9] Say no to groupthink: how philosophy can transform learning

[10] Introduce philosophy into the leaving certificate

[11] List of planned cities

[12] Adamstown

[13] Numbers continue to drop

[14] Donegal priest to say Yes

[15] Gay Irish priest comes out to parishioners


Results of the marriage referendum, with additional demographic details. Sorted by those in favour.

Results of the marriage referendum, with additional demographic details. Sorted by those in favour.

Epistemic Flatland

Imagine that you had to develop a working toy model of reality that captured not the entire facts of the matter as they are in our world but instead was required to model solely the epistemological[1] part. You might imagine the world as a boundless two-dimensional spatial plane, something like Flatland[2] perhaps. Let us call this toy model Epistemic Flatland. I am not suggesting an infinite plane, perhaps the plane wraps around on itself like the surface of a sphere, in such a way that it is finite but with no edges. On the plane “live” two-dimensional beings that have two sense organs, one for input, one for output, and a rudimentary “brain” with the faculty of language.

What internal machinery would these toy beings need to perform basic cognition and recognition. What internal machinery would these micro-inforgs[3] require to “speak”, make simple judgements and perform elementary logical operations, perceive and make sense of their world? Would these beings exhibit emotion and display affect as they each internally simulate their own little world and have their expectations met and thwarted? Each being or system would have a permeable boundary that encloses its internal structures and separates the system from its environment but allows data and information to pass through. It seems like an impossibly complex micro-world to construct; it seems like a thought experiment whose realization in the actual world is an impossible task. Nonetheless it is a thought experiment that I have found illuminating and instructive to play with.

In software engineering confounded programmers routinely ask for help with non-working code on web forums. A common request by the peers of the perplexed is for a minimal working example[4]. That is to say a snippet of the entire whole is requested that demonstrates the piece of non-working code or markup is requested. All other non-impinging details are stripped away to reveal the essential workings of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the grand project of epistemology is nothing else but to construct Epistemic Flatland. How much of this world (our universe) can we strip away and yet retain beings with the features of basic learning, basic cognition, basic pattern-matching and semiosis? The beings would not have to be recognisably human in any way but they would have to exhibit the recognisably epistemic features of human beings: language, subjectivity, and so on. How much “cheating” would be allowable, how atomic would this micro-world have to get in other words.

I believe that there could be value in creating a global challenge with a substantial monetary reward the better to spur research (something akin to the Millennium Prize Problems) with Epistemic Flatland as the goal.

Imagine if this universe we find ourselves in is just that minimal working example, perfectly coincided with it! And imagine further if we could prove that situation to be the case.

obligatory wikipedia links :)