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Irish Voters Prepare To Decide On Same-Sex Marriage

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you were to drive through Ireland right now, it would be impossible to miss the political fight happening there. Posters for and against same-sex marriage line the streets. Tomorrow, voters will decide whether to amend Ireland's constitution to allow gay couples to wed. If the referendum passes, Ireland would be the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through a popular vote. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Growing up in rural Ireland, Sharon Nolan didn't experience a lot of blatant homophobia. She says it was subtler than that.

SHARON NOLAN: You're kind of encouraged to not make a scene about your sexuality, and that you're kind of seen - well, why can't you just be like everyone else?

SHAPIRO: Nolan is 23, and Ireland has changed a lot during her life. The country decriminalized homosexuality when she was 1. Civil unions for gay couples became legal when she was 18. Tomorrow, Ireland could legalize same-sex marriage. Nolan often spends evenings canvassing in Galway City, where she lives now. She wants to go door to door in her family's village a couple hours from here.

NOLAN: My parents are trying to discourage me from doing that. They wouldn't want the neighbors talking about me or talking about them, but I'm like, can you not see that we kind of need to start these conversations?

SHAPIRO: The conversations have clearly started. Beyond the posters hanging from every street sign, campaign videos are all over the web. In this one, the No side warns that same-sex marriage could hurt kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Without exception, every child reared by a same-sex couple is denied either a father or a mother.

SHAPIRO: One of the Yes campaign's most popular videos urges voters to, quote, "bring your family with you." A young man escorts his grandmother to the poll. A grown woman stops her father working on a tractor.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dad, will you come with me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I wouldn't miss it for the world.

SHAPIRO: Ireland is one of the most conservative countries in Western Europe. People here still attend church regularly. Abortion remains illegal. Family is central to society, and both sides base their arguments on that sense of tradition and family. Kate Bopp is a spokesman for the No campaign.

KATE BOPP: The vision and the definition of marriage is in the eyes of people who are aligned with our view. It's quite simply a man-woman, potentially procreative institution. You know, you can say that, you know, this image and this picture is beautiful and so is this one, but they are not both at the same.

SHAPIRO: On the Yes side, campaign leader Tiernan Brady argues that Ireland's traditional values support same-sex marriage.

TIERNAN BRADY: Because they're about cherishing someone in your community - that this is somebody who lives in your village, who is in your family. And, you know, it's not someone sitting on a rock outside Ireland looking for permission to get in.

SHAPIRO: The polls have shown a consistent lead for the Yes campaign. Every major political party supports same-sex marriage. Whichever way it goes, the debate seems to have changed Ireland. Last week, I spoke with Aodhan O'Riordain, the Irish Minister of State for Equality.

AODHAN O'RIORDAIN: I've never been involved in anything like it before. We had the last day for registering for elections was a week and a half ago, and there was queues outside the local target offices up and down the country. That's never happened before - never for a referendum.

SHAPIRO: Voting begins tomorrow morning. Advocates say if the referendum passes, same-sex marriages in Ireland could start immediately. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.