Rachael Shearer speaks to some of the campaigners on the front lines working night and day to ensure Ireland votes yes to marriage equality.
This week, Ireland will possibly become the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Speaking with Grainne Healy, co-director of the Yes Equality campaign, and some of the frontline campaigners across the country, it is clear that both sides are still out in force in the final push before Friday’s vote.
Recently released poll results show that a 70/30 majority is still leaning towards a yes, but Healy is reluctant to rely on these sources.
“This has never been a complacent campaign, and we are taking nothing for granted,” Healy told the Irish Voice.
Unsurprised by the recent tightening in the polls since March, Healy knows that there are far fewer people now who remain on the fence.
“There are very few left who are undecided. The bottom line is, there are people out there who are going to vote no, and they are well within their rights to do that – even though we are hoping they vote yes.”
Given the recent U.K. poll shocks, there is a concern that the public will rely too heavily on these results and leave the responsibility to others. Owen Murphy, who has been working on the Yes Equality canvassing bus around Ireland, admitted that the greatest obstacle he has encountered is apathy. His bus has been to 66 locations in 26 counties over the past month, and volunteers have been met with an array of reactions to their campaign.
“There is so much love out there, but I also have been repeatedly physically threatened while canvassing, heckled and shouted abuse at from guys driving by in a car, told how disgusting I am, and how I'm an abomination. I've even witnessed women grab their children’s hands away as they reached to take a yes badge from me,” Murphy told the Irish Voice.
A fellow Yes Equality campaigner, Aoife Ryan Christensen, has had some similarly troublesome encounters, including “an elderly woman who said that if the government pushed this through, it would be the end of civilization and procreation. She called gay people sinners and said she would pray for me,” Christensen said.
Yes Equality was established by the groups GLEN, Marriage Equality and ICCL which have been working for the LGBT community for years, and began working together on this campaign in early March. It is comprises a large team of varying beliefs, philosophies, ages and backgrounds, with Healy as a co-director. They currently have over 60 groups campaigning throughout the country.
When asked what her biggest obstacle has been, Healy hesitated for a moment, weighing up the multitude of difficulties faced in a campaign of this magnitude. Just managing to squeeze in time for a quick call between meetings and debates, the Yes Equality schedule has every campaigner working around the clock.
Finally, settling on funding as a primary issue, Healy described the initial fears and perceived problems of fundraising before they even began. Yes Equality managed to raise the necessary funds but are still feeling significantly outdone, they say, by the no campaign’s affluence.
“So far, we have spent €50,000 on posters. Taking in the volume of no posters around the country, we estimate that they have spent six times that amount,” Healy says.
Largely funded by the Iona Institute and Mothers and Fathers Matter, the voices of the no campaign are significantly quieter this week. Breda O’Brien, a key mouthpiece for the no campaign, continues to voice her opinions through her column at The Irish Times, but says she is not able to debate on the grounds of illness.
O’Brien has come out with some interesting and “helpful” direction for Irish homosexuals, encouraging them to abstain from sex entirely on which she advises, "If you can live up to this very demanding thing, I think it will make you happy [to abstain]” – all this in spite of the fact that she is married with four children. This week, she lashed out at the Irish government and its campaign for a yes vote.
“This government’s only commitment to marriage is to re-defining it to make it gender-neutral and then repeating loudly that it represents no change at all. That is about as convincing as if I declared the word lesbian to henceforth include straight women, and then said that there was no re-definition going on at all, just an extension to a broader category of women,” O’Brien said.
The nature of this referendum as a personal matter has not escaped the minds of yes campaigners. Healy takes great pride in the 30,000 newly registered voters since the launch of their Register to Vote campaign, and they have developed an app called “Get Me to the Vote on Time” to ensure that no one misses the opportunity to have their say.
For people like Murphy and Christensen on the front lines, they are facing the diverse personal experiences of the public, some of whom are restoring their faith in the campaign.
“In Ballinasloe, Galway I met a man who said that he was voting yes for his nine year old son. He said that his son could wake up tomorrow or in five years and say, ‘Dad, I’m gay’ and he wanted him to have the same rights as everyone else,” Murphy said.
“This vote is about that boy and all the other children in Ireland who may grow up to be lesbian and gay and those who are already out there, but who cannot vote.”
The dominant stories in the media this week are of bravery, and the continual battle against the Catholic Church. In one of many powerful tales of heartbreak and revelation Ursula Halligan, the political editor of the TV3 station, was inspired by the referendum to finally come out as a lesbian after a lifetime of fear, denial and self-loathing.
“It’s a part [of life] that heterosexual people take for granted, like breathing air. The world is custom-tailored for them. At every turn society assumes and confirms heterosexuality as the norm. This culminates in marriage when the happy couple is showered with an outpouring of overwhelming social approval,” Halligan said.
However, there are still a significant number of people throughout the country who are not so courageous, and still feel the fear of voicing a controversial opinion that may cause conflict.
Christensen recounts meeting “a woman who said she was a silent yes. She wasn’t comfortable being open about it, but she said that she believed that constitutional support should be for everyone, so she was voting yes.”
As expected, there has been a significant focus on the Catholic Church in light of the referendum as church leaders go head-to-head with the state in a battle on the definition of marriage. There are the occasional tales of people like Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, a 75-year-old member the Religious Sisters of Charity and founder of the homeless support organization Focus Ireland, who will be voting yes, and Father Gerard Moloney who will be doing the same.
“While I see it as a sacrament, I believe it’s up to the citizens of the state to decide how they define marriage and who can enter into it. And that’s how it should be, because we live in a diverse, complex society today,” Moloney wrote in Monday’s Irish Times.
The referendum will only affect civil marriage – not religious marriage. Many are under the impression that Catholic priests will be obliged to marry same-sex couples in churches, which is not the case.
“Once we explain this to them, they are often much more inclined to vote yes. They have been very generous in this way,” Healy said.
What is Healy advising all voters in the final days leading up to the referendum? “Take some time to think. Irish people like to have a moment of reflection. It is important now to get informed,” she says.
All eyes are on Ireland this week, and the campaigners are well aware that the whole world is watching.
“This isn't a question of if, but a question of when. So, do we as a nation want to be 20 years behind the rest of the world in social change as we always are, or do we want to be on the cutting edge of social change?” Murphy asks.
“We can be a beacon for countries similarly growing out of a socially conservative history, to show them that change can happen through the will of the people.”