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Dignity and respect required over same sex marriage debate

A vivid indication of the changes which have swept across the Republic of Ireland over the last two decades can be provided by looking back to the referendum on divorce which took place in 1995.

The motion was only passed on that occasion by the tightest of majorities, 50.3 pc to 49.7 pc, with barely 9,000 votes out of the 1.6m cast separating the two sides.

What many people initially regarded as a much more contentious proposal on same sex marriage was accepted at the weekend by a striking margin of almost two to one, sparking scenes of huge celebration at Dublin Castle and other venues.

A total poll of just under two million, the biggest referendum turn-out in the history of the state, resulted in a decisive Yes vote by 62.1pc to 37.9pc, a gap not far short of 500,000.

Suggestions of a sharp urban/rural divide did not materialise, with only one constituency in the entire state, Roscommon/South Leitrim, reflecting concerns over family values by narrowly rejecting the measure.

It was accepted across the board that young people went to the polls in unprecedented numbers and for better or worse overwhelmingly backed the Yes side.

Among the most telling responses came from the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, who together with all the rest of the Catholic hierarchy had supported a No vote but said that the Church now needed to take a `reality check'.

Dr Martin said that the Church had to ask itself if it had `completely drifted away' from the younger generation and commented that a social revolution had been under way in Ireland for some time.

When the dust has settled after a seismic development, it will be noted that Northern Ireland is now the last part of these islands where same sex marriage remains prohibited.

The most recent vote on the issue at the Stormont Assembly came only last month, and the status quo was maintained by just 49 votes to 47.

However, the DUP had already controversially introduced what is known as a petition of concern to ensure that new legislation could not pass even if it won a majority.

It is inevitable that the debate will intensify in the coming months, and it should be accepted that complex political, legal and moral arguments are involved and the final outcome remains uncertain.

What is essential is that all discussions are conducted with the same dignity and respect which characterised almost every aspect of the campaign in the Republic.

The No camp deserves huge credit for avoiding recriminations, graciously conceding defeat almost as soon as the count began and actually congratulating their opponents in a spirit of reconciliation.

If a similar tone can be maintained by all parties in the north, there is every reason to hope that we will arrive at an outcome which unites rather than divides our increasingly diverse society.

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