HOW IRE­LAND DID IT

A look be­hind the scenes of this Catholic coun­try's his­toric vote.

GA Voice - - Front Page - By KC WILDMOON

Aod­hán O’Rior­dain did what politi­cians of­ten do. He stood on street cor­ners, rain or shine, hand­ing out fly­ers and but­tons. He trav­eled from Dublin to Gal­way to Kerry to Cork. He ap­peared on pan­els and at fo­rums, gave speeches to or­ga­ni­za­tions. He shook hands, took self­ies and maybe even kissed a baby or two.

Ire­land’s min­is­ter of state for equal­ity, new com­mu­ni­ties, cul­ture and na­tional drug pol­icy—a long ti­tle that could be eas­ily short­ened to “min­is­ter for all things con­tro­ver­sial”—was far from the only one. All across the coun­try, men and women, gay and straight, old and young, urged their friends, their fam­i­lies and com­plete strangers to vote for the right of gay and les­bian peo­ple to marry the part­ner of their choice.

They couched it in terms of equal­ity, and the sim­ple word­ing of the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment they sup­ported said it all: “Mar­riage may be con­tracted in ac­cor­dance with law by two per­sons with­out distinc­tion as to their sex.”

When all the cam­paign­ing and vot­ing was done, they had won. Not just won, but won big. With a turnout of more than 60 per­cent—more in line with na­tional elec­tions than a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum— 62 per­cent voted yes. Only one of the repub­lic’s 26 coun­ties voted no: ru­ral Roscom­mon, where the no votes won the day, just barely, with 51.42 per­cent.

How did that hap­pen? How could one of the most Catholic coun­tries in the world be­come the first to ac­cept same-sex mar­riage on a popular vote?

Turns out, it wasn’t as dif­fi­cult as one might think, but it did take a lot of hard, hard work by civil rights groups, po­lit­i­cal par­ties, grass­roots or­ga­niz­ers, and in­di­vid­ual Ir­ish cit­i­zens. And lots of con­ver­sa­tions.

“It was a soft but firm cam­paign to say ‘This is an equal­ity is­sue,’” said San­dra Ir­win-Gowran of Ire­land’s Gay + Les­bian Equal­ity Net­work (GLEN). “‘There is an injustice here.’”

“It wasn’t enough to know some­one who is les­bian or gay,” she said. “You have to tell them what mar­riage equal­ity means for you and ask for sup­port.”

“It was rightly framed as equal­ity, full stop,” said An­drew Hyland, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of Mar­riage Equal­ity, which be­gan for­mal work on mar­riage equal­ity in 2008. “LGBT cit­i­zens be­long in Ire­land, their love be­longs and their re­la­tion­ships be­long—be­ing an equal part of the fab­ric of Ir­ish so­ci­ety.”

“The move­ment didn’t hap­pen overnight,” he said. It was a long-term strat­egy of “lob­by­ing, grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion and so much more.”

‘Some­thing quite mag­i­cal’

Mar­riage Equal­ity and GLEN joined with the Ir­ish Coun­cil for Civil Lib­er­ties (ICCL) to form Yes Equal­ity, and be­fore long, Yes Equal­ity groups had popped up all over the coun­try, in ev­ery county—at least 58 of them by the end of the cam­paign.

“We couldn’t en­vi­sion how big the cam­paign would grow,” Ir­win-Gowran said. “It was a phe­nom­e­nal cam­paign to be in­volved in, some­thing quite mag­i­cal.”

Yes Equal­ity groups held fundrais­ers, wrote sto­ries, and got lo­cal press for their events, cre­at­ing visibility and get­ting more peo­ple in­volved. When it came down to the fi­nal press, “hun­dreds and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of peo­ple were out can­vass­ing ev­ery night of the week.”

“They were knock­ing on doors, ask­ing peo­ple to vote yes, an­swer­ing ques­tions,” she said. “And a lot of th­ese peo­ple had never been in­volved in any­thing like this be­fore.”

Yes Equal­ity pro­vided work­shops and can­vass­ing guides, and, it seems, this per­sonal touch had a ma­jor role in coun­ter­ing what Ir­win-Gowran said had been a “quite nasty, hurt­ful” cam­paign by mar­riage equal­ity op­po­nents. The na­tion­wide con­ver­sa­tions, she said, cre­ated “a groundswell of love and re­spect.”

“Once the ma­jor­ity of Ire­land’s cit­i­zens saw this as be­ing just that—a mat­ter of equal­ity—the land­slide victory joy­fully fol­lowed,” Hyland said.

“It was a soft but firm cam­paign to say ‘ This is an equal­ity is­sue.’ There is an injustice here. It wasn’t enough to know some­one who is les­bian or gay. You have to tell them what mar­riage equal­ity means for you and ask for sup­port.”

—San­dra Ir­win-Gowran of Ire­land’s Gay + Les­bian Equal­ity Net­work (GLEN)

Decades in fight for equal­ity lead­ing up to his­toric vote

But Ire­land’s move to equal­ity started long be­fore the May 22 vote. Un­til 1993, ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­ity was il­le­gal in the coun­try. That change be­gan in earnest in the 1970s when uni­ver­sity lec­turer and fu­ture se­na­tor David Nor­ris founded the Cam­paign for Ho­mo­sex­ual Law Re­form. Aided along the way by two fu­ture Ir­ish pres­i­dents, Mary Robin­son and Mary McAleese, Nor­ris even­tu­ally took the case to the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights and won in 1988.

Dur­ing the first decade of the 21st cen­tury, Ire­land saw a flood of re­ports and rec­om­men­da­tions on changes to fam­ily law, some fa­vor­ing civil part­ner­ships in­stead of mar­riage, some fa­vor­ing mar­riage, some rec­om­mend­ing no change at all. Mean­while, a small group of ac­tivists was hard at work to get Ire­land to rec­og­nize just one mar­riage: that of two Ir­ish cit­i­zens who were mar­ried in Canada.

At mid-decade, a gov­ern­ment re­port con­cluded that al­low­ing same-sex mar­riage was the only way to achieve equal­ity, but that it was un­likely to pass the re­quired con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum.

The Ir­ish par­lia­ment set­tled on civil part­ner­ships and changes to tax laws, and there was, of course, a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion.

As the gov­ern­ment moved for­ward with a civil part­ner­ships bill, Ire­land’s High Court ruled against the les­bian cou­ple who had been mar­ried in Canada, say­ing that the con­sti­tu­tion meant for mar­riage to be be­tween a man and a woman. The group that had been work­ing on that case formed Mar­riage Equal­ity, with the goal of full mar­riage for gay and les­bian cou­ples.

Those work­ing with the gov­ern­ment on civil part­ner­ships saw the ef­fort, for the most part pri­vately, as a step­ping stone to full mar­riage equal­ity. But it wasn’t easy.

“It ac­tu­ally split the com­mu­nity a lit­tle bit,” said Panti Bliss, Ire­land’s most rec­og­niz­able cam­paigner. “It was a source of ten­sion for a cou­ple of years. One year at Pride, there was even some boo­ing.”

Older, sea­soned ac­tivists were largely be­hind the civil part­ner­ships drive. In­spired by work on the is­sue in the United States and else­where, how­ever, a siz­able group of younger ac­tivists saw that as ac­cept­ing a sec­ond-class sta­tus.

Even Nor­ris, by then a se­na­tor, was ini- tially op­posed to the civil part­ner­ships bill.

Bliss—Rory O’Neill when he cast his vote on May 22—said this was the mo­ment that drew her heav­ily into the cam­paign.

“Part of my role was to sort of ease that ten­sion,” she said. “Af­ter all, both sides were work­ing for the same goal.”

“And,” she said with a con­spir­a­to­rial wink, “I’ve al­ways been able to in­clude the younger lot. For them, I have more in­flu­ence than some­one in a suit would.”

Lots of knock­ing on doors

Even­tu­ally, Nor­ris and some oth­ers changed their po­si­tions, and civil part­ner­ships were put into place in 2010. But there was a sur­prise: It had a pro­found ef­fect on Ir­ish so­ci­ety.

Ir­ish cit­i­zens sud­denly saw friends and fam­ily mem­bers an­nounc­ing their part­ner­ships. Greet­ing cards cel­e­brat­ing civil unions ap­peared in shops. Very quickly, O’Rior­dain said, it be­came a “cul­tural norm.”

“So when it came to the ques­tion of mar­riage, it wasn’t some­thing we were talk­ing about in a com­plete vac­uum,” he said.

Although some feared the civil part­ner­ship leg­is­la­tion would di­lute the vote for same-sex mar­riage—”it’s too soon,” the mis- taken be­lief that part­ner­ships were equal to mar­riage—the push for equal­ity was on.

O’Rior­dain’s Labour Party joined the more con­ser­va­tive Fine Gael party in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment af­ter the 2011 gen­eral elec­tions. One of the con­di­tions: a vote on a mar­riage equal­ity amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion. With a strong push from Mar­riage Equal­ity, GLEN and the ICCL, a con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion rec­om­mended just that, and the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment set it up for a Spring 2015 vote.

Mar­riage Equal­ity brought GLEN and the ICCL into Yes Equal­ity as a for­mal coali­tion and got to work. A mas­sive voter reg­is­tra­tion drive—with a big boost from Ire­land’s stu­dent union—added 100,000 new vot­ers. There were T-shirts, but­tons and posters, ral­lies, ar­ti­cles and talks. And knock­ing on doors. Lots of knock­ing on doors.

“What re­ally won this cam­paign was peo­ple telling per­sonal sto­ries,” Bliss said. “The ‘No’ cam­paign was dry, ap­peal­ing to con­sti­tu­tional stuff, to fam­ily struc­ture. We had real peo­ple telling their own sto­ries.”

As Rory, Bliss was one of those knock­ing on doors. “They sent me to dif­fer­ent can­vass­ing groups ev­ery evening,” she said. “It’s hard. You’re knock­ing on peo­ple’s doors

“What re­ally won this cam­paign was peo­ple telling per­sonal sto­ries. The ‘No’ cam­paign was dry, ap­peal­ing to con­sti­tu­tional stuff, to fam­ily struc­ture. We had real peo­ple telling their own sto­ries.”

—Panti Bliss, Ire­land’s most rec­og­niz­able cam­paigner

ask­ing them to ap­prove of you. There’s an el­e­ment of em­bar­rass­ment.”

The ef­fort drew in moth­ers, sis­ters, broth­ers, cousins, friends and neigh­bors.

“My sis­ter, who has never been in­volved in any­thing po­lit­i­cal, she got in­volved in can­vass­ing in her small town,” said Ir­win-Gowran.

And then there was so­cial me­dia, har­nessed for an Ir­ish ref­er­en­dum in a way it never had be­fore. Even in the fi­nal days of the cam­paign: Thou­sands of Ir­ish peo­ple, who had left the coun­try for jobs dur­ing the coun­try’s re­ces­sion, filled fer­ries and flights into Ire­land, tweet­ing and Face­book­ing and In­sta­gram­ming their jour­neys with the hash­tag “#hometovote.”

“We had heard a lit­tle about it a while back,” Ir­win-Gowran said. “But we didn’t re­al­ize the scale of it.”

And in the end, that’s how Ire­land did it. They worked hard, worked to­gether, worked through dif­fi­cul­ties. They told their sto­ries and left it all in the hands of the Ir­ish peo­ple, who spoke, and spoke loudly.

“I don’t rec­om­mend a ref­er­en­dum as the way to go,” Bliss said. “I don’t think the rights of the mi­nor­ity should ever be voted on by the ma­jor­ity.”

“That said, it’s a re­ally fi­nal and pow­er­ful way to do it. No­body can carp about it af­ter­ward. We asked ev­ery­one in the coun­try and this is what they said. It’s a done deal. And that’s why it was so emo­tional when it was all over.”

“We turned it around and ap­pealed to peo­ple’s gen­eros­ity and their sense of fair-mind­ed­ness,” Ir­win-Gowran said. “That’s what made it so mag­i­cal.”

“Equal­ity means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, it means ‘we,’” said Hyland. “We have cut the cord of the op­pres­sion and shame which has clung to us since the found­ing of the Ir­ish state. We are free. We are loved. We are equal.”

(Photo cour­tesy GLEN)

Mau­reen Gowran (front) with her daugh­ter San­dra Ir­win-Gowran (right) and her daugther’s part­ner, Mar­ion Ir­win-Gowran, can­vass­ing for mar­riage equal­ity in Ire­land.

A selfie taken by Gerry Adams, head of Sein Fein (left), with drag queen Panti Bliss at the Dublin Cas­tle cel­e­bra­tion. (Cour­tesy photo)

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