Published in the Huffington Post, May 26th, 2015
Standing at the court yard of Dublin Castle last Saturday, I could feel a new Ireland being born. In this, our summer of love, the country has found hope at a time when many of us are disillusioned and weighed down by debt, deception, and despair. In doing so we have sent a powerful message that the people of Ireland are not afraid to rise up and shake off the shackles of our past.
This has been a story of heart breaking testimonies and huge courage in a battle against fear, misinformation, and the campaigns of church leaders. The dedication, collaboration and tireless efforts of countless campaigners and volunteers have shown the vast power of community, and the true meaning of love.
The yes vote has been a spectacular victory for civil society, a case study in the beauty of democracy, and a love story with many heroes. We’ve seen sports stars, the Gardaí, trade unions and student groups, psychologists, youth organisations, all main political parties, and everyone from dissenting priests and nuns joining veteran LGBT activists in speaking out for equal rights and an end to the shameful treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
Young people have been stars in this, offering near universal support for saying yes to an equal Ireland. On social media, in schools and colleges, and on the streets, they mobilised like never before. Tens of thousands of them registered to vote for the first time, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of groups like the Union of Students in Ireland. From Canada, Australia, the UK and beyond, young emigrants returned en masse to make their mark on history. This was a moment young Ireland stood up to be counted.
Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts have played a huge role too - those who wanted to end the isolation of gay people, and could see that Ireland has had enough of fear, judgment, shame and suffering. It's said that older women played a huge role, breaking with tradition and religion to birth a new dawn. And this victory didn't belong to a liberal elite. In working class areas such as Tallaght, Ballyfermot and Ballymun the yes vote was up on 80-90%.
It’s rare that the Irish political establishment covers itself in glory but during this campaign something was different. Yes there were issues, some parties and politicians stepped up to the plate more than others (and that's been noted) but for the most part there was a degree of unity beyond the usual blame game. Party strategists will be busy trying to capture the credit and momentum (watch out general election), but this doesn't belong to parties. It belongs to all of us.
Observing some of the no campaign’s tactics, it is clear that old prejudices won’t disappear overnight, but there’s no going back now. Ireland has changed forever. The concerns of no voters might persist but as we discovered with the introduction of contraception and divorce, time will show that the world goes on and that the main thing to change will be that more people will be happy, healthy and free to live without judgment. This, regardless of any differences, is surely something worth supporting.
As we prepare to commemorate the 1916 rising, the yes vote has inspired a generation and presents the prospect of the youth vote swaying the next election. It has shown us what is possible when we dare to dream and realise our huge power to change reality no matter how impossible it might seem. Let's not stop here. There are so many other battles for equality to be fought. Take gender, the wealth divide, disabilities, racism, direct provision, age equality, housing, health care, education, mental health and global justice to name but a few. But for now let's rejoice in our new Ireland and the great future that is ours for the taking.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar, and a member of Ireland's Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com and he is on Twitter@ruairimckiernan
Published in TheJournal.ie May 12th, 2015
AS THE MARRIAGE referendum campaign heats up there’s a lot of talk on the no side about marriage being an institution that needs to be protected. But protected against what or who? Marriage predates religion. It was historically linked to land, money and status, with women often traded between families as mere commodities.
Marriage has always been evolving. Up until the ’70s women had to give up work when they got married. In the not too distant past, love between Catholics and Protestants was frowned upon, divorce was illegal, and people were often forced to stay in miserable, violent or abusive relationships for the sake up protecting the institution of marriage.
It’s time now for another change. For too long many of our gay and lesbian friends, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons and daughters have been isolated and marginalised. They have been cruelly judged by some as being freaks and sinners, people who aren’t somehow normal or equal in the eyes of God or the State. It’s hard to believe now but it was only in 1993, and despite appeals by some groups, that being gay was decriminalised in Ireland.
Gay people are still pushed to the margins in many ways
My 15 years’ experience in youth and community work has shown me that a pervasive culture of homophobia has pushed many gay and lesbian people into the margins of society. This has led to depression, addiction, emigration and denial of identity for many. It has meant that some people have never been free to be who they truly are.
Thankfully things are changing but still, all over Ireland, and particularly in rural Ireland, gay people live in the shadows. They listen to the so called banter at school, at work, in pubs and at matches, the jokes and jeers about ‘queers’ and ‘faggots’, and of something negative being described as ‘gay’.
Research by Headstrong – the national centre for youth mental health, has found that 6% of heterosexual young people they surveyed had attempted suicide. This number is too high but it is nothing compared to the figure of 19% for gay and lesbian young people and 24% for young bisexual people. Other research suggests these numbers could be higher.
But these aren’t just numbers and statistics. The figures are made up by real lives –real young people in our families, schools, colleges, churches, work places and sports clubs, young people we need to stand up for, support, love, cherish and protect.
Marriage is a core part of our culture and denying same sex couples the right to be part of this is telling them they’re not equal, that their love isn’t as special or as sacred. For those considering a no vote, think about what message voting no would send to these people who are already struggling with having their identity and sexuality debated on a daily basis. Think about all the young people who are still afraid to come out to their parents. Think about all the suffering and suicides that we can avoid.
Decoys and distractions from the real issues
As to the argument that civil partnership will suffice, there was a compelling riposte doing the rounds on social media recently. It stated that arguing for civil marriage is like saying African-American civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks should have been happy with her seat at the back of the bus.
When it comes to the debate around surrogacy and adoption, this is a decoy and a distraction. These laws are already in place and the Chair of the Adoption Agency has clarified this. No amount of misinformation or fear mongering will change this.
It’s clear too that neither marital status nor the gender of parents can guarantee happiness or safety for kids. The reports of agencies like Barnardos, the ISPCC and CARI provide harrowing evidence of this. There are plenty of single parent families, both single mothers and fathers, who provide better parenting that some families combined. Similarly there are same sex couples who are as dedicated to loving, supporting and protecting their children as anyone you’ll meet.
This time last year I got married. My right to marry was not one I had to fight for, unlike the estimated 10% of Ireland’s citizens who are denied the same right. The question needs to be asked – if marriage is an institution that can foster love and joy in the world, then why deny it to another? If, for some, this is about religion and God is love, then why would that God want to prevent someone’s happiness? Surely none of us has the right to deny that right and to deny another’s happiness.
This is why an unprecedented alliance of diverse voices is calling for a yes vote. This includes Sr Stan, Mary McAleese, Gay Byrne, Fr Tony Flannery, Brian O’Driscoll, the Gaelic Player’s Association, the Garda Representative Association, Amnesty International Ireland, the National Youth Council and all the main political parties.
I understand why some people fear change. There is much to be concerned about in a fast changing world where community is fragmented and compassion is in short supply. But we shouldn’t give in to fear. People have suffered enough. Fear is the enemy of love and on May 22nd we have a chance to choose love. In doing so, we can help heal Ireland and send a powerful message to the world about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar, founder of SpunOut.ie, and a member of the Council of State. His website is www.ruairimckiernan.com
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.