Saturday 23 May 2015 was definitely one of the best days of my life.
In the few days before, I had been becoming more optimistic about the result. But even still, the night before the poll, I barely slept, which wasn’t ideal, as I had the last of my summer exams on the afternoon of polling day! I voted as polls opened at 7, as I so often do. But it was great to go down there with my sister Ursula, then catch the 7.04 train from Bray. I tuned into what was happening on Facebook and Twitter, and was bowled over with the emotion by the enthusiasm for the occasion, how many were flying and sailing #hometovote. But I had to maintain focus on that exam!
At 5, as the class moved down to the King’s Inn, and the conversation stayed on the exam, I had only the referendum and its place in wider social change in Ireland on my mind, so went with a few of them down to the Bernard Shaw, which was in a more political mood.
Meeting the Dublin Bay South canvassers in Slattery’s that night, as polls were closing, I ventured to hope to one that we could have reached 58%. Yet the following morning, about an hour before boxes were to open, I noted that anything over 53.7% would put us above Washington, which approved of marriage equality by popular vote in 2012. But from early in the day as we tallied the votes, it was clear it’d be more comfortable than that. The first box I tallied was from Curtlestown, just outside Bray, with 212 Yes to 75 No. A few minute or two later, I saw a tweet from Tiernan Brady that Bundoran had a result of 60%, and it was clear this was an extensive win. I was pleased to find out later in the morning that my own box in Bray got a high Yes vote of 301 to 105.
Every vote was important. Though many of us went through periods during the campaign where we imagined that it was going badly, that we might lose, and that a win no matter how small was a win nonetheless, it was important that we got a clear result, across the whole country. This wasn’t an urban Yes and a rural No, as we’ve seen in previous referendums. I haven’t seen the tallies from Ballinasloe or Ballincollig, but they’re likely to have seen a Yes vote, like most other towns across the country, despite the predictions a few months ago of Sen. Rónán Mullen.
It was wonderful to be in Dublin Castle for the result, to see how much joy there was among the crowds who had gathered there and on the streets outside. Then to meet other canvassers in Jury’s hotel in Ballsbridge. It was especially nice to be there with two friends I had been with the Hist committee ten years earlier. Ten years ago I had been sidelining what feelings I had of being gay because I didn’t think it practical to pay heed them. Perhaps it was fear of attention, that I thought it would be easier to get by if I acted as if I were straight. Talking to one of those two friends that night, I wondered, “If only I had known then that we would be here today”. After thinking on what I said, her response was perfect: “If we’d known then, then today wouldn’t feel so amazing”.
That explains so much of the joy that we saw throughout the country that day. It wasn’t just that we were pleased with the result in itself, and relief that the work of the campaign had gone the right way, but how far we’ve come.
This great success wouldn’t have happened without those who worked at each stage of the way. Some campaigners who worked in the foundation of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in 1975, such as Sen. David Norris and former president Mary McAleese, who played a key role in this campaign. Norris’s cases, represented by former president Mary Robinson, with the High Court and Supreme Court finding against him, before his victory in the European Court of Human Rights. The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), were prominent in the work leading up to decriminalisation in 1993 and civil partnership in 2010, as they were in this campaign. There was Marriage Equality, with its single-issue focus on this campaign, and the very important work from Michael Barron and others in Belong To, with their focus on the needs and concerns of young lesbian, gay, bi and trans people in Ireland. Each year at Pride, we see the wide range of organisations working to achieve and promote equality, and all of these deserve credit for the change in the culture that contributed to the high result.
One of the great things of these recent years for me was to get to know these people well, to work with them. I’ve made many great friends over these years. My own avenue to the campaign was through politics. Contrary to what Una Mullally wrote during the week, I do see a strong role for parties as a source of political change. Not everyone can find a party that suits them, and for others, the focus of a particular campaign or organisation serves their aim better. But the energy we saw in the campaign should hopefully find its way into the political process, especially as we look ahead towards the coming general election. For the campaign to be successful in the way it was, it needed both the approval of the political process, in the establishment of the constitutional convention which proposed it, and in the passage of the amendment bill through the Oireachtas, and also the experience in canvassing. Our campaign in Wicklow was led by Ian McGahon, who had been a local election candidate for Labour, and as well as myself from Fine Gael, we also had James Doyle, who stood last year for Fianna Fáil. This combined experience mattered, even as the vast majority of those who canvassed with us had never done so before. We also benefited in different ways from the support of our local TDs Andrew Doyle, Simon Harris and Anne Ferris.
I was quite pleased with the role Fine Gael played in this campaign and the political process leading up to this. When I joined the party in 2009, I had recently begun to come out as gay, so it was very much on my mind. But at that stage, while I saw a dynamism in the party in many areas, there were a few conservative voices on this issue, most notably Lucinda Creighton, who caused us a lot of trouble before the 2011 election – though she too came out in favour in the end!
It was Charlie Flanagan’s speech as Justice Spokesperson in response to the civil partnership bill in November of that year that confirmed for me that there was a place for me in the party, that I could imagine the party speaking out strongly in favour of equality. Even after a motion I put to the 2010 YFG Summer School was narrowly defeated, I stayed on, because of that speech, in which he hoped it would be a step towards full equality. I was elected to the YFG National Exec, appointed as Director of Policy, and then proposed the motion again at Summer School in 2011, when there was barely any opposition to speak of. It was great to see the change in the organisation, with so many there wearing white ribbons on their lapels, which Maeve Howe, who was seconding the motion with me, had made to promote the motion.
At the 2012 Fine Gael Ard Fheis, another friend of mine from Trinity, Mark O’Meara had proposed a motion in favour of marriage equality. Yet the party watered it down to the focus to one on the constitutional convention. It was through the leadership of Jerry Buttimer that we saw change take hold within the parliamentary party. He was the first Fine Gael TD to come out as gay, and I was proud to join him from the start in the work of the newly established Fine Gael LGBT. We were small at first, as seen in pictures of our delegation to Dublin Pride that year, but we grew in prominence, and played an important role in bringing the conversations on the lives and relationships of LGBT people to party members. We had great assistance in establishing ourselves from our general secretary Tom Curran, who shared his own family story during the campaign.
There are many others in the parliamentary party I could mention here, though I would pay a particular tribute to Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, our vice chair on Fine Gael LGBT. We were in a good position with both ministers for justice during this period, with Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald showing a clear commitment to equality, and through their efforts at different stages, we saw the passage of the comprehensive reform of family law in the Children and Family Relationships Act. During these few years, the understanding of Enda Kenny has grown, from when he was jumping over flowerpots to avoid answering questions, to dropping into our Christmas drinks in Panti Bar, and speaking with a true insight when launching the Fine Gael campaign.
The end of the campaign brought with it a strange feeling. We had a great celebration at home on the Sunday. Then in the days after, I came across a few in work who had voted No. Some were light-hearted about it, but others were bitter. Despite the high Yes vote as evidence of Ireland as an open society, there were still many who voted No. The result will certainly make lesbian, gay, bi and trans people feel more relaxed and comfortable in our country, as we saw in reports of gay couples feeling more confident holding hands in public since the vote, but also with an awareness that homophobia still exists. On the other hand, it was to be able to just walk away from comments, not be in campaign mode, where I’d feel an obligation to counter what they said for any wavering voters there. And I should say, most in work were very positive in the days after the referendum, some of them having spotted me in the news coverage.
I also heard of gay people who knew of immediate family members who had voted No. Exhilarating as the campaign was, it wasn’t an easy one. Putting it to a vote wasn’t all positive. It was sometimes difficult to canvass, not knowing what the response would be. I’ve had negative responses before, canvassing for both the PDs and Fine Gael, but that wasn’t personal in the way this was. But though my exam schedule meant I couldn’t go out as often as I’d like, it still always felt worthwhile doing so, and was glad I did what I could.
The emotional comedown was difficult, knowing that it was over. I know I’m not alone in that, and it’s good to see a focus from the Yes Equality campaign on emotional well-being. The campaign wasn’t easy, putting so much of ourselves out there, directly or indirectly, having our lives, or the lives of friends or family, as a matter of public debate or disagreement. That’s part of what took me time to write this. The relief of knowing that this was no longer something I’d have to think about, at least as far as Ireland goes. It will be a while before it truly sinks in, whether it’s after what will be an amazing Dublin Pride, the legislation is enacted, or we see the first marriages take place. But there are already small effects of the change. It is a great feeling to know that I will not have to campaign on this again. I will watch with interest what happens in other countries, how big the majority will be on the US Supreme Court, but no longer with half an eye on the momentum it will build for change here.
Almost immediately, we heard people asking what’s next. It was great to see progress so swiftly on an improved gender recognition bill, one of the best in the world. The trans members of our community had stood with us during this campaign, like Sam Blanckensee here in Wicklow, and it’s great to see that there is something for them too to have Pride in their country this year. Whether someone identifies as male or female, or somewhere along the spectrum, should be their decision alone, a simple matter of a free choice in a free society. Given the prevalence of single-sex school, I hope the review in two years which forms part of the bill will make provision for those under 16.
There are, of course, many other social issues in need of legislative and constitutional reform. There always will be. Not all these campaigns can be compared precisely in how they will succeed to this campaign for marriage equality. The rapid change in attitudes that occurred as more people came out to their family and friends, and in the context of a global debate and legal change (unfortunately in both directions), cannot be so easily replicated. But the lesson must be to maintain focus in further campaigns on the lives and experiences of individuals, and how restrictive laws affect them. We have a great group of people in Wicklow, and we mean to find ways to continue to campaign.
It was a great campaign to be involved in, and one I’m sure I will always cherish. And that day has made possible so many great days for so many, even better than the win itself, not just this year, but forever more.
I will also vote Yes to lower the age of eligibility for the office of president. At 21, adult citizens are eligible to stand in a general election and from there to sit in government. I cannot see any reason why these adult citizens should be excluded from the onerous nomination and election process, for a further fourteen years. While we might not be able to imagine who such a candidate might be, who could represent the nation at such a young age, why should we be happy to make the statement that no person under 35 could have that capacity? Why exclude the possibility and limit the choice of the people absolutely in this respect?
There have been the rare examples across history of those who led movements of change at a young age, who inspired their community and their country, including from the time of the foundation of our own state. Rare as they may be, let’s not deny such a candidate the chance to put their name before the people.
Many have complained that it’s too small a reform. There are amendments I’d rather be voting on. But it made sense to hold one with the marriage referendum that wouldn’t distract from that important debate. And if even small, unobjectionable measures of political reform don’t get public support, what makes anyone think a government will be eager to make the case for a more substantial measure of political constitutional reform?
The European elections will be held on redrawn constituencies as Ireland will lose a seat, so that we have 11 rather than 12. Dublin remained as it ever has, with the rest of the state divided with line midway across, such that we in Bray share a constituency with Kerry and Limerick, and everything to our south.
We’re in the midst of candidate selection, and some of this is based on speculation, but this is my current prediction:
Dublin (3): Brian Hayes (FG), Lynn Boylan (SF), Emer Costello (Lab)
North-West–Midlands (4): Mairead McGuinness (FG), Pat The Cope Gallagher (FF), Matt Carthy (SF), Marian Harkin (Ind)
South (4): Seán Kelly (FG), Brian Crowley (FF), Liadh Ní Riada (SF), John Bryan (FG)
This would leave party totals as:
Fine Gael 4 (no change)
Sinn Féin 3 (+3)
Fianna Fáil 2 (–1)
Labour 1 (–2)
Independent 1 (no change)
Socialist Party 0 (–1)
Or in terms of European Parliament groups:
European People’s Party 4 (no change)
European United Left/Nordic Green Left 3 (+2)
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 3 (–1)
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats 1 (–2)
A lot could change, of course, but at the moment, the one of these above I’d be least confident about is the third seat in Dublin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that go to Fianna Fáil, who select their candidate on Sunday. They are choosing between Tiernan Brady, Geraldine Feeney, and Cllr Mary Fitzpatrick. I know Tiernan Brady, who was formerly a Donegal councillor, and has worked for a number of years with GLEN (the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network), and would be quite happy to see him take that third seat. Mary Fitzpatrick was clearly sidelined by Bertie Ahern in 2007, and so might be seen by voters as a break with the old leadership.
At the moment though, I think sitting Labour’s MEP Emer Costello will hold. She was co-opted in 2012 to the seat won by Proinsias De Rossa. A recent poll showed Labour and Fianna Fáil tied at 14% in Dublin. While Labour will not be as transfer-friendly, the votes of eliminated candidates on the left should benefit them over Fianna Fáil. If the other regions become lost causes, Labour will likely concentrate all their efforts in Dublin, which could help her over.
I’m also working from the assumption that Paul Murphy, who replaced Joe Higgins as the Socialist Party MEP in 2011, will not hold, particularly as he faces a challenge from People Before Profit Cllr Bríd Smith for the far-left vote and organisation. While Joe Higgins had a force of character and presence to win the third seat in 2009, Murphy won’t have the same advantage. He also received a lot of support from those who wanted to keep Fianna Fáil out of the third seat then, and who weren’t going to vote for Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. Paul Murphy has been visible since his co-option, but I don’t think it will be enough to be competitive against the larger parties’ organisation.
Elsewhere, I don’t think Jim Higgins will hold up against the strong field, but I think he would do as well or better than another Fine Gael candidate. Short of a strong new force or candidate, the results in South and North-West–Midlands seem straightforward from here.
Overall, these results would be a solid election for Fine Gael, which has been the largest at a European level since 2004; a very good election for Sinn Féin; Labour would be back to their traditional place of usually having just the one in Dublin; and somewhat disappointing for Fianna Fáil.
However, European elections are of a different sort. If we want to see how party support and organisation is ahead of the general in 2015 or 2016, the locals will be where to look towards.
The conference from the Reform Alliance later this month should be interesting to watch. I might even call in to it. While Lucinda Creighton did insist on Prime Time yesterday that it isn’t a political party, it certainly seems to be heading that way, with a date of September mentioned. If Stephen Donnelly joins them, my Wicklow homeland would become a stronghold for them. I’ve been asked more than once by friends and family if I’d consider joining them. There’s really barely a hope of that.
It’s not just that I’m enjoying my current activity in Fine Gael. If a party emerged that was closer to my ideals, and had reasonable prospects of being viable, I’d give them a fair hearing. This new group doesn’t seem likely to be either. When I spoke in favour of dissolution at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, among other things, I said that if we were to continue, we could inhibit the development of our ideas in another political force. The Reform Alliance is not what I had in mind.
Let’s jump back to the 1980s, to the events that led to the formation of the PDs. Des O’Malley first lost the Fianna Fáil whip in 1984 because he was willing to consider political solutions in the New Ireland Forum Report other than a united Ireland (all of which gave much more power to the Irish government than the later agreements). He was then expelled from Fianna Fáil in February 1985 after he stood by the republic in the debate on the Family Planning Bill, arguing against that party’s tactical opposition to modest liberalisation of contraception laws. While an Independent TD, O’Malley led the charge against Minister for Transport Jim Mitchell’s ridiculous notion that it should be illegal to sell a place ticket lower than Aer Lingus, paving the way for cheap flights and Ryanair. Mary Harney lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 1985 after she voted in favour of the Anglo–Irish Agreement. She and O’Malley were joined in December 1985 at the launch of the new party by Michael McDowell, a former chair of Dublin South-East Fine Gael, who was unsatisfied with the Fine Gael/Labour management of the economy. As well as realism on the national question, moderate personal liberalism and an economic focus on lower taxation rather than government control, a large impetus for the strength of the party was opposition to the politics of Charlie Haughey.
I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.
Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.
Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.
In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.
And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.
All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.
I will then vote Yes to establish a Court of Appeal (the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution Bill). Over the past decade, there have been considerable and growing delays in the Supreme Court hearing of appeals from the High Court. Our Supreme Court deals with much more than its equivalents in other countries. In our constitutional system, questioning pertaining to constitutional interpretation must take precedence there, such that many civil matters are delayed in their appeals from the High Court for up to four years. Ireland has been found liable in both the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice on the grounds of unreasonable delay. Having a speedy process in civil cases will set us in line international obligations on issues such as extradition and child abduction, while also making us more attractive to multinational firms, who often have concerns about lengthy litigation. These problems were detailed by Susan Denham, now Chief Justice, in 2006 in the Judicial Studies Institute Journal.
The same amendment will also remove the requirement on the Supreme Court to deliver only one judgment in cases challenging the constitutionality of laws. In cases not relating to the constitutionality of laws (e.g. high-profile cases AG v. X. on abortion or AG v. Hamilton on cabinet confidentiality), and in cases relating to laws enacted before 1937 (e.g. Norris v. AG), dissenting judgments do contribute to an understanding and development of the law, without undermining the authority of the majority judgment. These development and the value of dissenting could not have been foreseen when de Valera proposed this change as one of many in the Second Amendment in 1941. (It will not amend this in the case of referrals by the president before a bill is signed, presumably on the grounds that as such a law cannot after be challenged on constitutional grounds, diverging or dissenting judgments would not be beneficial.)
I will be voting Yes this Friday to abolish the Seanad (the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution Bill). I have tried to encapsulate across different platforms the various reasons I have for doing so over the course of this campaign, over different platforms. In short, in these closing days, I hold that in a country like Ireland, without clear and sharp cultural or geographical divisions, we should have a single parliamentary chamber composed of representatives elected by us to pass laws on our behalf. This is something I first considered around ten years ago, and since then it had always seemed like a common sense proposal. We hear of many ideas for its reform, but that casts it as a house in search of a purpose. What reforms are proposed are ones that should be delivered for the Dáil, as our house of representatives. And even though I don’t believe political reform should stop here, I think it is a worthy reform in itself, to remove a house elected by a privileged section of society in a proportion of university graduates, of senators I’d barely recognise elected by Oireachtas members and councillors, and 11 who may or may be not be decent senators depending on the whim and needs of the Taoiseach.
I was delighted when Enda Kenny announced this policy soon in 2009, not long after I joined Fine Gael, and that he stuck with this commitment through the election campaign and into government. I would not have had the primary focus on cost that we saw from Fine Gael posters, but I think we have had a broad debate. Whatever the result on Friday, at least the people will have had their say.