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Five things to know about Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum

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Eight opinion polls in the past two months of campaigning have recorded a strong lead for “yes” voters. But Irish referendums often produce surprise results. Analysts say several factors could produce a louder-than-expected “no” when ballots are counted Saturday.

Referendums provide a lightning rod for anti-government sentiment, regardless of the issue at stake. All political parties and most politicians are backing the “yes” campaign. Anti-gay marriage campaigners, led by the Catholic Church and a conservative think tank called the Iona Institute, argue that the lopsided support from the political establishment should raise suspicions for ordinary voters.

Irish referendums also usually feature low turnout, often under 50 percent, and this rewards the most committed voters who often hold the hardest opinions. Allied to this is the pattern that voters backing the publicly unpopular view, in this case opposition to gay rights, often give misleading answers to pollsters.

As a result, despite the polling picture, “yes” activists express nervousness about the result, while “no” leaders sound confident of an upset.

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If the verdict is “no,” Ireland’s gay residents can continue to enter civil partnerships, marriage-style contracts legalized in Ireland in 2010. More than 1,000 gay couples have become civil partners in the past four years, giving them marriage-style rights on property, inheritance, tax and other financial matters. But legal experts say the partnerships are legally inferior to marriage in dozens of aspects. Some gay people say, in event of rejection, they might move to countries where same-sex marriage is legal. Advocates of gay marriage could push for another referendum, but that could take more than a decade.

If the verdict is “yes,” married gay couples will gain constitutional recognition and legal protection as a family unit. No new civil partnerships will be executed. Those already in civil partnerships will have them dissolved if they marry.

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