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Ireland prepares historic referendum on gay marriage

Ireland could become the first country in the world to vote for same-sex marriage in a historic referendum this week in this traditionally Catholic nation.

Voters on Friday will be asked whether or not to add an article to the Irish constitution saying: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

The latest polls show the “Yes” side in the lead. Volunteers for and against gay marriage have been canvassing door to door in recent weeks and billboards have appeared appealing for votes, as a colourful “Yes” bus makes its way around the country.

All the main political parties, including conservatives, are supporting the change — a seismic shift in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993 and abortion is still illegal.

But a “Yes” victory is by no means certain and there is concern among proponents about whether “Yes” supporters will come out and cast their ballots.

“We will ensure that people will be treated equally, no matter who they love,” Prime Minister Enda Kenny has said.

The move is opposed by the Catholic Church, whose influence has waned in Ireland amid growing secularisation and after a wave of child sex abuse scandals that badly discredited the hierarchy.

“Marriage should be reserved for the unique and complementary relationship between a woman and a man from which the generation and upbringing of children is uniquely possible,” the Irish Catholic Bishops` Conference said in a statement.An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published on Saturday showed 70 percent support for the “Yes” side and 30 percent for the “No”. The same pollsters in March had given the “Yes” side 78 percent.

There is a clear divide in the polls, with many older people and rural residents intending to vote “No”.

Eighteen countries around the world have so far legalised gay marriage or are about to do so, including 13 in Europe. Across the border in Northern Ireland, gay marriage is banned even though it is legal in the rest of Britain.

Referendums have previously been held in Croatia and Slovenia, and in both cases voters rejected legalising gay marriage. In Slovenia same-sex marriages were, however, legalised by parliament in March.

The constitutional referendum in Ireland would have to be followed by specific legislation passed in parliament.

While the country has undergone vast economic and social change in recent decades, abortion is still banned except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger. Thousands of Irish women seek abortions in Britain every year.

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