Looking back, moving forward: Ireland’s social transformation on the pages of Trinity News

Taking a look at the most formative moments of recent years through the lens of the Trinity News comment section

Ireland, ten years ago, stood in a very different position regarding social progressiveness than it stands now. In recent years, though, Ireland has been seen as an emblem of a forward-thinking 21st century Europe, largely due to big steps taken on social issues. Let’s revisit two of the most controversial social issues of the past decade in Ireland.

The mid-2010s saw a wave of countries pass bills legalising same sex marriage, with Ireland finally taking the leap in 2015. Two years prior, TCDSU (Trinity College Dublin Students Union) enacted a referendum to take a view of the student body on the topic. A Trinity News article, entitled The Marriage Equality Debate, saw the views of two students on the topic. 

The student arguing for marriage equality brings up several points, one I particularly resonate with is that marriage has been a transformative institution for as long as it has existed. As a sign of the times, they quoted John Green, who said “the truth is, marriages are intensely personal. They are defined not by courts or by votes but by the people that live inside of them. That’s traditional marriage: people making a daily, lifelong commitment. We can’t make gay marriage illegal because gay marriage is already happening. It has been happening in fact for as long as human beings have been pledging themselves to each other.”

The ‘against’ argument raises issues of the family once again, and an interesting point they raised was the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it states in Article 16: “Men and women … have the right to marry and to found a family” and that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society.”

The student arguing against marriage equality is also a practising Catholic, which is important to acknowledge because his definition of family is largely based in Catholic belief. Nothing with Article 16 attempts to prescribe what a family is, because, as the other student concluded, it’s not really anyone else’s business. I think that this shift is one of the most notable turning points in recent Irish history. Many young people have turned from religion, or at least shied away from approving the intertwined nature of the Church and the State, which dominated Ireland for centuries.

The definition of marriage is ever-changing, and John Green’s quote rings true even more now. Birth rates are going down, and marriage isn’t simply seen as the first step in starting a family. Far more couples are also starting families without being married at all. In my eyes, marriage in 2023 has transformed from a standard religious nuclear family setup, to a simple declaration of love and commitment between two people. Divorce rates are also on the rise. So hey, maybe the commitment bit is even up in the air. Solidifying an equal right to marriage, in my view, was symbolic. A symbol that gay and straight people, and our marriages, would be seen as equal under the law.

Another issue that hit the Irish stage in 2017 was the repeal of the 8th amendment, which granted access to abortion. Around the time of this debate numerous articles were written, from a heartbreaking anonymous recollection of one’s own abortion experience travelling to the UK, to the impeachment of a UCDSU President for removing information about accessing abortions from a fresher’s magazine. One I particularly resonated with was a student tasked to write in favour of repealing the 8th amendment, but took a much gentler view on why. She stressed that repeal would not ‘mandate’ abortions, it would just remove the blanket ban placed under the constitution, which prohibited abortions even in cases of rape, or in the very early stages, affording no nuance to the issue. Furthermore, it acknowledged the necessity of many pregnant people to travel for abortions prior to repeal, to the UK or other places in Europe. That’s something that has become more accepted in recent years, that abortions do happen, and that is why it’s critical to ensure safe and legal access to them.

Now, it’s quite scary that 10 years later, we’re looking at a world that appears to be twisting itself backwards on this. Last year, the US Supreme Court repealed Roe V. Wade, a court case that granted the right to access to abortions. And the same narrative is circling back, that people will just drive to other states or countries, that people will seek unsafe, illegal abortions, or that we will make a 12 year old carry her rapist’s baby. It’s a dangerous path to start travelling back down, and one that needs to be fought against.

So where do we go from here? Ireland is still severely slacking on banning conversion therapy, implementing progressive harm-reduction drug policies, and access to gender affirming healthcare. It’s unjust for Ireland to accept praise while still failing many of its people massively.

Leo Varadkar, in a panel discussion with the Hist on October 18, boasted about socially forward policies in Ireland and how he was especially proud, as a gay man, to have been a part of social movements such as these. However, his statement was followed by sympathetic remarks with an Irish Times article that approached gender affirmation as a mental illness and promoted denying access to care to children deemed too young to “understand” they were transgender. We can’t claim to be proud of how much we’ve achieved in the past when we’re failing the future.

It was only 10 years ago when we were out on the streets, begging for our voices to be heard, begging to be seen as one and the same with heterosexual couples, begging for the equal right to marry the person we loved. 40 years ago, the LGBTQ+ community was begging for the government to address the detrimental AIDS crisis, to stop needless deaths and relentless homophobia and misinformation. 

The transgender community is begging to be seen and fought for by the government in the same way groups did many years ago, that we look back now in shame for ignoring. If you’re a part of that, and you find the basic rights we had to fight for 10 years, or 40 years ago bizarre, do the work to ensure we won’t be in the exact same place years from now.