How Ireland made history by approving marriage equality

Aodhán O’Riordain did what politicians often do. He stood on street corners, rain or shine, handing out flyers and buttons. He traveled from Dublin to Galway to Kerry to Cork. He appeared on panels and at forums, gave speeches to organizations. He shook hands, took selfies and maybe even kissed a baby or two.

Ireland’s minister of state for equality, new communities, culture and national drug policy—a long title that could be easily shortened to “minister for all things controversial”—was far from the only one. All across the country, men and women, gay and straight, old and young, urged their friends, their families and complete strangers to vote for the right of gay and lesbian people to marry the partner of their choice.

They couched it in terms of equality, and the simple wording of the constitutional amendment they supported said it all: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

When all the campaigning and voting was done, they had won. Not just won, but won big. With a turnout of more than 60 percent—more in line with national elections than a constitutional referendum—62 percent voted yes. Only one of the republic’s 26 counties voted no: rural Roscommon, where the no votes won the day, just barely, with 51.42 percent.

How did that happen? How could one of the most Catholic countries in the world become the first to accept same-sex marriage on a popular vote?

Turns out, it wasn’t as difficult as one might think, but it did take a lot of hard, hard work by civil rights groups, political parties, grassroots organizers, and individual Irish citizens. And lots of conversations.

Sandra Irwin-Gowran of Ireland’s Gay + Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN)
Sandra Irwin-Gowran of Ireland’s Gay + Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN)

“It was a soft but firm campaign to say ‘This is an equality issue,'” said Sandra Irwin-Gowran of Ireland’s Gay + Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN). “‘There is an injustice here.'”

“It wasn’t enough to know someone who is lesbian or gay,” she said. “You have to tell them what marriage equality means for you and ask for support.”

“It was rightly framed as equality, full stop,” said Andrew Hyland, communications director of Marriage Equality, which began formal work on marriage equality in 2008. “LGBT citizens belong in Ireland, their love belongs and their relationships belong—being an equal part of the fabric of Irish society.”

“The movement didn’t happen over night,” he said. It was a long-term strategy of “lobbying, grassroots organization and so much more.”

‘Something quite magical’

Marriage Equality and GLEN joined with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) to form Yes Equality, and before long, Yes Equality groups had popped up all over the country, in every county—at least 58 of them by the end of the campaign.

“We couldn’t envision how big the campaign would grow,” Irwin-Gowran said. “It was a phenomenal campaign to be involved in, something quite magical.”

Yes Equality groups held fundraisers, wrote stories, and got local press for their events, creating visibility and getting more people involved. When it came down to the final press, “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people were out canvassing every night of the week.”

“They were knocking on doors, asking people to vote yes, answering questions,” she said. “And a lot of these people had never been involved in anything like this before.”

Yes Equality provided workshops and canvassing guides, and, it seems, this personal touch had a major role in countering what Irwin-Gowran said had been a “quite nasty, hurtful” campaign by marriage equality opponents. The nationwide conversations, she said, created “a groundswell of love and respect.”

“Once the majority of Ireland’s citizens saw this as being just that—a matter of equality—the landslide victory joyfully followed,” Hyland said.

Decades in fight for equality leading up to historic vote

But Ireland’s move to equality started long before the May 22 vote. Until 1993, homosexual activity was illegal in the country. That change began in earnest in the 1970s when university lecturer and future senator David Norris founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. Aided along the way by two future Irish presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Norris eventually took the case to the European Court of Human Rights and won in 1988.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Ireland saw a flood of reports and recommendations on changes to family law, some favoring civil partnerships instead of marriage, some favoring marriage, some recommending no change at all. Meanwhile, a small group of activists was hard at work to get Ireland to recognize just one marriage: that of two Irish citizens who were married in Canada.

At mid-decade, a government report concluded that allowing same-sex marriage was the only way to achieve equality, but that it was unlikely to pass the required constitutional referendum.

The Irish parliament settled on civil partnerships and changes to tax laws, and there was, of course, a difference of opinion.

As the government moved forward with a civil partnerships bill, Ireland’s High Court ruled against the lesbian couple who had been married in Canada, saying that the constitution meant for marriage to be between a man and a woman. The group that had been working on that case formed Marriage Equality, with the goal of full marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

Those working with the government on civil partnerships saw the effort, for the most part privately, as a stepping stone to full marriage equality. But it wasn’t easy.

“It actually split the community a little bit,” said Panti Bliss, Ireland’s most recognizable campaigner. “It was a source of tension for a couple of years. One year at pride, there was even some booing.”

A selfie taken by Gerry Adams, head of Sein Fein (left), with drag queen Panti Bliss at the Dublin Castle celebration. (Courtesy photo)
A selfie taken by Gerry Adams, head of Sein Fein (left), with drag queen Panti Bliss at the Dublin Castle celebration. (Courtesy photo)

Older, seasoned activists were largely behind the civil partnerships drive. Inspired by work on the issue in the United States and elsewhere, however, a sizable group of younger activists saw that as accepting a second-class status.

Even Norris, by then a senator, was initially opposed to the civil partnerships bill.

Panti—Rory O’Neill when he cast his vote on May 22—said this was the moment that drew her heavily into the campaign.

“Part of my role was to sort of ease that tension,” she said. “After all, both sides were working for the same goal.”

“And,” she said with a conspiratorial wink, “I’ve always been able to include the younger lot. For them, I have more influence than someone in a suit would.”

Lots of knocking on doors

Eventually, Norris and some others changed their positions, and civil partnerships were put into place in 2010. But there was a surprise: It had a profound effect on Irish society.

Irish citizens suddenly saw friends and family members announcing their partnerships. Greeting cards celebrating civil unions appeared in shops. Very quickly, O’Riordain said, it became a “cultural norm.”

“So when it came to the question of marriage, it wasn’t something we were talking about in a complete vacuum,” he said.

Although some feared the civil partnership legislation would dilute the vote for same-sex marriage—”it’s too soon,” the mistaken belief that partnerships were equal to marriage—the push for equality was on.

O’Riordain’s Labour Party joined the more conservative Fine Gael party in a coalition government after the 2011 general elections. One of the conditions: a vote on a marriage equality amendment to the constitution. With a strong push from Marriage Equality, GLEN and the ICCL, a constitutional convention recommended just that, and the Irish government set it up for a Spring 2015 vote.

Marriage Equality brought GLEN and the ICCL into Yes Equality as a formal coalition and got to work. A massive voter registration drive—with a big boost from Ireland’s student union—added 100,000 new voters. There were T-shirts, buttons and posters, rallies, articles and talks. And knocking on doors. Lots of knocking on doors.

“What really won this campaign was people telling personal stories,” Panti Bliss said. “The ‘No’ campaign was dry, appealing to constitutional stuff, to family structure. We had real people telling their own stories.”

As Rory, Panti was one of those knocking on doors. “They sent me to different canvassing groups every evening,” she said. “It’s hard. You’re knocking on people’s doors asking them to approve of you. There’s an element of embarrassment.”

The effort drew in mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors.

“My sister, who has never been involved in anything political, she got involved in canvassing in her small town,” said Irwin-Gowran.

#HomeToVote campaign takes off

And then there was social media, harnessed for an Irish referendum in a way it never had before. Even in the final days of the campaign: Thousands of Irish people, who had left the country for jobs during the country’s recession, filled ferries and flights into Ireland, tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming their journeys with the hashtag “#hometovote.”

“We had heard a little about it a while back,” Irwin-Gowran said. “But we didn’t realize the scale of it.”

And in the end, that’s how Ireland did it. They worked hard, worked together, worked through difficulties. They told their stories and left it all in the hands of the Irish people, who spoke, and spoke loudly.

“I don’t recommend a referendum as the way to go,” Panti Bliss said. “I don’t think the rights of the minority should ever be voted on by the majority.”

“That said, it’s a really final and powerful way to do it. Nobody can carp about it afterward. We asked everyone in the country and this is what they said. It’s a done deal. And that’s why it was so emotional when it was all over.”

“We turned it around and appealed to people’s generosity and their sense of fair-mindedness,” Irwin-Gowran said. “That’s what made it so magical.”

“Equality means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, it means ‘we,'” said Hyland. “We have cut the cord of the oppression and shame which has clung to us since the founding of the Irish state. We are free. We are loved. We are equal.”