Country would be first to back gay marriage in referendum
* Country would be first to back gay marriage in referendum
* Ireland was last in W. Europe to decriminalise gay sex
* Entire political system rallies behind gay movement
By Conor Humphries
DUBLIN, May 18 (Reuters) - Ireland, the last country in Western Europe to decriminalise homosexuality, now looks set only two decades later to become the first in the world to approve same-sex marriage in a national referendum.
Back in 1993, legalising gay sex divided a deeply Catholic society. But a quiet revolution since then has so changed Ireland that now all political parties strongly back the reform. Only two of the 166 parliamentary deputies oppose it.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a practicing Catholic, has even visited a gay bar and polls predicting Friday's vote will pass by two-to-one.
Activists say close-knit communities drove the change by rallying around gay friends, family and co-workers, while the collapse of the Catholic Church's overwhelming influence allowed the political system to slowly come on board.
"Politicians used to rush out of the way to avoid photos with me. Now it's the reverse," said David Norris, a senator who led a decades-long campaign to decriminalise gay sex.
"The (same-sex marriage) campaign itself has been a landmark for Ireland ... there is a much clearer and much softer attitude towards gay people," he said.
Neighbouring Britain decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, but a veil of silence smothered the issue in Catholic Ireland. In the 1970s, police monitored Dublin's only gay bar and tiny gay pride marches were jeered by passers-by.
An attempt to overturn the criminal statute in 1983 failed when a supreme court judge referred to homosexuality as "morally wrong" and contributing to depression and suicide.
"It was a bitter time," said best-selling author Colm Toibin, one of Ireland's highest profile gay men. "It certainly looked to me as though the one thing they are never going to do in Ireland is accept us."
It was only after the European court in Strasbourg ruled it was incompatible with Europe's convention on human rights that homosexual activity was legalised. Only a third of voters agreed, a poll said.
WAVE OF CHANGE
But by then a wave of social change had hit Ireland as the Church's domination of politics collapsed after a torrent of sex abuse scandals.
The shift in attitudes that followed was driven as much by "mothers, sisters, workmates" fighting to defend gay men they knew as activist groups of gay men, said Toibin.
When the minister of justice set the age of consent for gay men to 17, she said the mother of a gay teenager had convinced her to do it.
As more public figures came out of the closet, gay bars started to appear in central Dublin and annual gay pride parades grew from a few hundred marchers in the early 1990s to 40,000 last year.
"The speed of all that change has been pretty incredible," said Rory O'Neil, a drag queen who has helped lead the marriage equality campaign. "That is partly because Ireland is a small country. Everyone has a gay uncle or a gay neighbour."
The final piece of the puzzle was the rallying of the political system, culminating in Kenny's visit to a party held at O'Neil's Panti Bar late last year.
"Five years ago no Taoiseach (prime minister) would have sat down and decided to appear in a gay bar," said O'Neil. "The idea that this would play visually well is remarkable."
A month later, one of the most senior members of Kenny's cabinet, Health Minister Leo Varadkar, came out as gay on national radio, unleashing a wave of media support.
Activists say they are worried that the media and political consensus may have prompted opponents of gay marriage from speaking out and that the vote may be close.
But if it passes, Saturday will be "a day of liberation," said Toibin. "But I think people feel that whatever happens, there has been a sea change." (Editing by Tom Heneghan)
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