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Winning the Marriage Referendum: A Simple Message

As part of Dublin Pride, GLEN hosted a meeting in Wood Quay entitled, How to Win a Referendum. It was great to see such a large turnout, full to capacity, and a meeting focused on getting us over the line.

It will be a tough eleven to sixteen months (based on different estimates of when the poll will actually be). With a good campaign, I’m confident we can win this. But we need this good campaign, and to be prepared for all that could emerge. Tiernan Brady, who hosted the proceedings, closed by saying that if each of us can sleep easy when polls close knowing that there was nothing more we could have done, no one else we could have talked to, then we can look forward to the result the next day. That is no small task.

We need a simple, clear message. There is so much that could be said about the marriage question and the history and development of the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Ireland and across the world, moving to a place where we can be integrated as we wish in society, while also celebrating our distinctive identities and culture. We could go on at length, having what would doubtless be worthwhile discussions. Some of this will emerge over the course of the campaign, and I wouldn’t seek to repress it.

But most of the voting public will hear but a fraction of the debate. We need to ensure that there is a dominant message in the campaign, one which they can relate to and understand. Why it matters that they vote Yes to this proposition.

I see three prongs that should be emphasised, to different degrees. The extent or the order we might emphasise these would depend on the platform, who you are engaging with, what they are raising, and how long you have with them. Marcella Corcoran Kennedy spoke of a conversation with a fellow passenger a train journey; that might give someone half an hour. On an evening canvass, you might be lucky to get ten seconds with someone at their door.

First, we should establish why marriage matters. Media debates on this question get caught up sometimes with a definition of marriage. But marriage has changed over the course of human existence, it is as varied across time and place as societies themselves have changed or continue to be different. Nevertheless, there are certain elements that remain true, certainly within generations in Ireland. Marriage both creates and extends a family. It is a public statement of the commitment of two people for each other, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health. It means being there for someone, looking out for them. If we get the chance to engage with people who are themselves married, ask them what it means to them.

Then we have the substantive issue, why it matters for us. The significance of being able to celebrate your lives together and love for each other in a way that has such universal understanding. Or if not you personally, your gay friend, your lesbian sister, your bi neighbour. That there should not be a distinction between the love and commitment of one couple and that of another. We need to hear whole families talk, parents talking about the love each of their children have found, and that what matters is not whether the person who their son or daughter wishes to marry is a man or a woman, but that it is someone who will be there for them. Not only will the uncertain voter connect more with a personal story than about a more generic message about a tolerant society, they will also be brought much closer to understanding the question and its meaning. The focus should not just be on the couples either, but also on the children currently raised by gay couples. Focus on the opportunity it gives them, that their parents could be treated just others, not to grow up with society making this distinction.

Third is the reassurance. That the second does not in any way detract from the principle of the first, but enhances it. That this is an opportunity to reaffirm the value of marriage in society. And also to engage with the question of religious marriage. We cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of people in the country are either religiously observant or retain instinctive attachment to their faith. This should not be approached from a perspective of church against state. Each denomination and faith will of course continue to be free to make their own decisions about marriage as a religious sacrament. All the referendum seeks to do is to allow gay couples wed in the civil institution of marriage. Allowing this will improve the lives of these couples and their families, without in any way affecting marriage for anyone else.

But all this is has been far too long. We need to continue to find ways to distil the essence of these elements of the case in shorter, more concise forms. And that is but one part of the work ahead.

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