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Campaigning for marriage equality

With Leo on the night of the count.

In Jury’s Ballsbridge on the night of the count.

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.

Fine Gael LGBT marching in Dublin Pride 2012

Fine Gael LGBT marching in Dublin Pride 2012

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.

Fine Gael LGBT at Dublin Pride 2014

Fine Gael LGBT at Dublin Pride 2014

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.

Why a Yes vote on Marriage Equality this Friday matters to me

This is the sixth referendum campaign I’ve taken part in. I’ve also been to the count centre after every general and local election since 1997. I was emotionally invested in the result on each occasion. I have both great and difficult memories from those count days. Yet I will watch the results come in on Saturday with more trepidation than ever before. This isn’t normal politics, whether in the distribution of resources, or arrangements of political structures. This referendum is about me, and others like me, a political decision on our lives and relationships, and our place in Irish society.

It is the natural step in the decline of animosity and the growth of empathy towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Ireland and elsewhere, that we would have the same opportunity to marry as anyone else. Slowly at first, and then in rapid succession, other countries and territories have come to view the limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples as an unjust exclusion, and changed their laws to reflect this new insight and understanding.

We have seen since the beginning of this year in particular what a Yes vote would mean to so many people, what a difference it would make. Those who were quiet for decades about this part of their lives, silent even to themselves, who felt compelled to speak out. And felt so much better for it. And we can think of young people, beginning to realize their difference from their peers, how wonderful the effect of a Yes vote would be for them, how devastating the effect of a No vote.

Being gay is not a small part of who I am. It doesn’t feel right to say that I just happen to be gay. It is not an incidental feature like height or hair colour, but a distinguishing feature of one of the relationships most important to me. From when I properly realized that future romantic relationships would most likely be with other men, it was something I could not but see as an important part of who I am. Indeed, it was before then, though I did not yet fully realize it. It is important because of where we now stand in society. A successful result will allow us each to determine its significance for ourselves. I look forward to the idea that my romantic life will no longer be a political issue.

This isn’t about any need for validation, but a commitment that society should treat us all with equal concern and respect, and that where the state is involved in our lives, our laws should recognize our equal dignity. With civil partnership and family law reform in place, to withhold marriage is such an arbitrary and needless act of discrimination.

When I attended a wedding service of two friends of mine earlier this year, something that stood out is our part in that. Not only did they commit to each other, for better, for worse, but we, the community of friends and family gathered there, also pledged to stand by them. The vote this Friday is that moment writ large. It is a chance to say clearly that when two people choose to make this commitment, we will stand by them, and hold their relationship as something to value.

So vote Yes. Be part of what should be a great moment for so many of us. Plan your trip to the polling station on Friday, and make sure others you know have done the same. Every vote will send a message, and every Yes vote will help secure a more equal Ireland.

Why I am not an agnostic; and church/state separation

27 August, 2012 Leave a comment

In Theo Dorgan’s otherwise very commendable article on expressions of faith in response to Katie Taylor (‘Nobody should be rebuked or mocked for personal beliefs’), he drew a distinction between atheism and agnosticism that I think misrepresents atheism. A letter to the editor the following week from Allan Deering made the point that they are answers to separate question. Atheism is an answer to whether or not one one believes in a god; agnosticism is an answer whether or not this question can be answer.

Atheism should not be mischaracterised as being inherently assertive. One call oneself an atheist without thereby adopting a ‘hectoring tone and hysterical righteousness’, to use Dorgan’s phrase. It can be meant in either a weak form, someone who does not believe in a god, or in a strong form, someone who believes that there is no god. It is the former that I would use to explain my own views. I am not claiming to know for certain, or for near certain, that there’s no god, but for me there’s no reason to treat it as an open question, any more than other issues.

I did in the past believe in the Christian God, and was a practising Anglican for a few years. Tho I cannot imagine it now, there is no way to know for certain that I might not again in the future come to a religious understanding of the world. But to describe myself as an agnostic as opposed to an atheist would be to emphasise something which does not play into my understanding of the world.

Atheism and politics

Inasmuch as there is a political aspect to my atheism, it would be about hoping for society and the state to take a position of neutrality between belief or lack thereof. I think it quite possible that our current President, Michael D. Higgins does not believe in God. Yet were he to have decided to omit the references to God in the presidential oath (‘In the presence of Almighty God … May God direct and sustain me’), it would have been portrayed as somewhat provocative, rather than simply being his own view of the world and so a personal matter. The same is true of a judge who would wish to omit the references to God in their oath of office. Our training of primary teachers makes religious training a default part of the course, making life more difficult for anyone who is not religious who wishes to become a teacher, and leading to the odd situation from the point of view of religious parents, that their children could be trained in their beliefs by teachers who have no religious beliefs themselves.

But more broadly, religions should have as much of a voice as any other part of civil society, with neither preference nor disability. The fact that a political opinion has a religious derivation does not make it any less valid as part of public debate. For many people, it is how their understanding of the world and society makes sense. But yet each claim to public policy should be subject to similar scrutiny, regardless of derivation.

I don’t believe Minister Pat Rabbitte was asserting much different to this in his response to Seán Brady on This Week yesterday. Separately from this question, I cannot understand how Seán Brady is treated with any respect on questions of morality given the consequences of his failure of action in 1975. Rabbitte did not deny any right of the Roman Catholic Church to play a role in society. With the freedom of association and freedom of religion comes a freedom of others to disagree with the actions of any organisation, and I don’t think Rabbitte did any more than that. Subject to the same restrictions as any other organisation, the Roman Catholic Church can lobby politicians. Ultimately, they cannot dictate policy; they can only recommend it, however forcefully. And much as one may regret their role, they maintain their right to take part in any debate.

“Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.”

22 February, 2012 4 comments

It was only in November 2008, the morning after the US presidential election, that it properly and more clearly than before struck me that I was gay. Though I had engaged in low-level lobbying within the Progressive Democrats approaching the 2007 election on the lack of progress on a promised civil unions bill, it was partly on secular grounds because of my objection to the consultation between Michael McDowell, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with Roman Catholic bishops in drafting legislation relating to gay people, and partly on the urging of my then girlfriend. And it was only after Proposition 8 in California was defeated that I paid much attention to it.

It was a few days later, on 8 November, I regretfully spoke and voted in favour of a motion to disband the Progressive Democrats, something that seemed a possibility from the results of the 2007 election on.

So in looking for a new party, I was more conscious than before of parties’ attitudes to gay rights. The release of Milk early 2009 was a reminder of the value of political activism and how being honest and open can change assumptions and perception, being the story of Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay people elected to public office, and who helped defeat Proposition 6, which would have barred gay teachers.

Yet I joined Fine Gael because it is the party closest to me on the role of the state in spending and economic governance. This did not mean that my deeply held liberal principles were set aside. I remembered what the late Dr Garret FitzGerald said, “You don’t join a political party because you agree with them. That always struck me as a rather static view. You join a party because you can change it. It’s a more dynamic view of politics.” And he did change assumptions not just within Fine Gael, but in the country as a whole, and remains a political inspiration for me.

In December 2009, I went to Leinster House on the first day of the debate on the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill. The first response was from Charlie Flanagan, who as Fine Gael Spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform gave an outstanding speech, the best of the evening, in which he stepped beyond party policy, “while many welcome it, others believe it does not go far enough. To those people I would say that change is incremental and I hope that full equality is not far away”, and went on to remind us what secularism has done for society

It was then with a measure of hope that in July 2010, I proposed a motion at Young Fine Gael Summer School (where motions are consultative) with Trinity YFG to support allowing gay couples to marry. But this was very narrowly defeated, with a mere two votes in it. Of course I was disheartened, but I realized that I hadn’t given the time to something that to me seemed so obvious. And a rephrasing of what Milk said in the clip above formulated in my mind: a young gay centre-right political activist who all of a sudden realizes that they are gay; there are two options, move to Labour, or stay in Fine Gael and fight.

So I stayed on, was elected to the National Executive in November, and appointed Director of Policy. Many friends of mine outside the party found my involvement difficult to understand. I did feel that too often people did accentuate the negative, and assume a focus on social matters far greater than existed. The election result of last year was a time of hope and political renewal.

At the Summer School in July 2011, I proposed the same motion for Dublin South-East again at summer school, with Meadhbh. That time it got near universal support. It almost made me glad two people who would have voted for it the year before had turned up late.

Then this Saturday, on my last full day on the National Executive, a motion at Young Fine Gael Conference (where motions are binding as policy), proposed by Úna and Noel for DCU YFG, calling on the government to bring forward legislation allowing gay couples to adopt, was similarly passed with near universal support.

I am proud to have been an active part of the organization during this rapid change on this issue of personal importance to me. I was taken aback and very appreciative of the response to my comment on Facebook on this.

Indeed, the shift in public opinion here and in other countries in the last few short years has been remarkable. This has been both reflected and advanced by popular culture, and cheesy though it may seem, it was the words of this song, as performed by Chris Colfer, as Kurt in Glee, that went through my head before Summer School last year, “Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.”:

Ending the closet

davidlaws I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.

Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.

Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.

That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.

It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.

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Changing Teams, Part 2

17 February, 2010 Leave a comment

The days following the election on 24 May 2007 were emotionally very disappointing for me, for both personal and political reasons. The party fell from eight seats to two, including the loss of the Michael McDowell’s seat. We held a General Council meeting not too long after, where we retrospectively endorsed the programme for government negotiated by Fianna Fáil and the Greens. Groups of the party met of the following months, wondering again and again what could be done. The next General Council meeting was in November, and there was very little difference in what was said then, and a general feeling of lethargy set in. I think the party could have been salvaged at that point, had a real effort been made to re-engage with the moment of 1985 and what that should mean in 2007, but it would certainly have been a difficult battle.

We elected a new leader in May 2008, Ciarán Cannon, and for many that was the first they had heard of him. In September, he announced that he could no longer see a future for the party. Given that no one of the leadership supported continuing then, I reluctantly supported the decision to disband. In ways I felt it would hinder the possibility of a re-emergence of a viable liberal party, whenever that could be possible, had we continued, so on 8 November 2008, I spoke at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, on the side of the motion that passed.

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Changing Teams, Part 1

17 February, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, I read Pat Leahy’s Showtime, on Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern, and Kevin Rafter’s Fine Gael: Party at the Crossroads, on the party under Enda Kenny.

Reading the accounts of political events over the last decade and a half, I was reminded of my own reaction to these at the time. As I became interested in politics around the time of the revelations about Charles Haughey and Ray Burke, I was suspicious of them as a party. Supporting the re-election of the Rainbow government, being sure the minority Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government couldn’t last much beyond 1997; sure it was near collapse around the Sheedy incident.

Reading Rafter’s book specifically, I remembered that as a John Bruton supporter, I was wary of the internal opposition to him in 2001 and wasn’t enthusiastic about Michael Noonan; I supported Enda Kenny as the leadership candidate that year, as he was close to Bruton, and felt vindicated, but incredibly disappointed, when Fine Gael fell from 54 seats to 31 in 2002. I was known in school as a Fine Gael supporter, and received a lot of abuse the day back the weekend after that election. I supported Richard Bruton for the leadership, but was enthusiastic about Enda Kenny. I was pleasantly surprised at the party’s first great success under his leadership, with 5 seats of 13 at the 2004 European elections.

But from around the same time, I was becoming more attracted to the Progressive Democrats. I was impressed with Michael McDowell at the 2002 election. While the team I was then supporting was faring relatively poorly, I found another to be somewhat enthusiastic about. In the RDS at the count in 2002, I told those I talked to that I was a Fine Gael supporter and sympathised with those who were tallying for the party, but for want for something to be happy with, I wondered over to look at the tallies from Dublin South-East where the Attorney-General had topped the poll. In the canteen, I shook his hand to congratulate him on the result. I appreciated his stances as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform over the coming years, liking his proposal on café bars and his strong stance against the Provos (though I felt the citizenship referendum was unnecessary). I also respected the work Mary Harney had done as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

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