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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.

“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.”:

Young Fine Gael votes in support of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry

10 July, 2011 6 comments

This time last year, at the Young Fine Gael Summer School, I proposed the motion, “This Summer School supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry”. It was defeated, two votes short of a majority. Yesterday, now as YFG Director of Policy, I proposed the same motion, and it passed overwhelmingly with, I think, two votes against. This is what I said in the two minutes I had to speak,

Those of you at summer school last year, or I’ve talked to since or last night on this, know this is important to me.

For me, this is fundamentally about the hope I might settle down one day into happily married life, hopefully in a lifelong relationship. The same reasons anyone wants to marry.

Studies on this, and just plain common sense, will tell you those who are married in committed relationships live longer, healthier and happier lives. Of course having a constant, loving companion can be such a comfort in life, there for each other, for better for worse, in sickness and in health.

In voting in favour, you simply acknowledge the care and love a couple show each other should be recognised in a way they believe best reflects their commitment.

We’re now ten years since gay couples in a growing number of places around the world first had the opportunity to marry. How could allowing more people commit to each other send anything but a positive message about the value of marriage?

As to children, don’t forget there are currently children in Ireland being raised by gay couples; it would give them too added security and protection if their parents could marry, such as in a situation if anything was to happen to their birth parent, where under current law their other parent would currently be treated as a stranger.

There is civil partnership. But these beneficial effects have so much a firmer backing with the authority and tradition of marriage. Further, justice requires conditions of people’s lives determined by government be provided equally for all.

This has proved successful in other countries; it will enhance the comfort and security of gay couples, it will make gay children and teenagers growing up in Ireland feel more included in society; it will provide Constitutional support as well to children being raised by gay couples, and it will give peace of mind to the parents and wider family of gay people. With all this, I really think there is no social benefit in preventing me and others from marrying.

Thank you.

It was followed by an excellent speech from Maeve Howe, chair of Dublin South-East YFG, who stressed that this is a human rights issue, not an LGBT issue, and then by an informed discussion from the floor. It was also supported earlier in the day in an address from local TD Seán Kyne, who picked the motion out as one we should support.

There were other motions this weekend which I was proud of, which I will summarize tomorrow. There have been some great moments since I became active in the party in autumn 2009. But the support the motion received yesterday, such a reversal in twelve months, was one of the most satisfying for me at a very personal level, and something I was proud to play a part in.


Here below is a list of all motions in the general policy section of Summer School: Read more…