Monday 26 September 2016

The Weekly Read: Marriage referendum opened students' minds to being politically active

Hayley Halpin

Published 17/02/2016 | 16:50

Gay rights activist Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, arriving at Dublin Castle as votes are counted in the referendum on same-sex marriage last May Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Gay rights activist Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss, arriving at Dublin Castle as votes are counted in the referendum on same-sex marriage last May Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

"Speculation can be made about the impact the marriage referendum will have in the future of student’s engagement in politics. However, it’s impossible to determine whether students will actually continue to be so active in political movements."

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May 23rd, hundreds of students joined the crowd in the sunshine in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, Ireland.

Adrenaline, joy and relief filled the atmosphere throughout the day. Ireland had become a nation of equals. Marriage equality had passed.

7.20pm. The official announcement was made in the conference centre of Dublin Castle, the citizens in the courtyard burst into “Amhrán na bhFiann”, the national anthem. Equality had won.

Prior to the marriage referendum, the students of Ireland showed little political engagement during general elections or referendums.

However, something changed in 2015. Students began standing up, speaking out, using their vote. The marriage referendum opened students' minds to being politically active.

“I believe that without the student campaign, the marriage referendum would not have been won,” DCU Applied Languages student, Benji Foley said. “Without the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), would tens of thousands of students have registered to vote? Would we have made grá the law? I honestly don’t think so.”

Early last year, the USI registered 40,000 university students across Ireland to vote in the lead up to the marriage referendum on May 22nd. In October 2014, they registered a further 10,166 students, leaving the total that the USI registered at 51,166.

Roll back to the General Elections of 2011. The USI took to university campuses to register students. They only managed to register around 7,000 students. A stark contrast.

In the months leading up to May 22nd students became politically active like they had never been before. LGBT societies in universities began campaigning rigorously on campuses, independently registering students.

They hosted panel discussions, made speeches in lectures, worked closely with their Students’ Unions, to ensure they held a Yes stance. This opened up a platform for all students, no matter what their background or sexual orientation to have a voice.

“In my local YesEquality group, as the campaign progressed, more and more students joined up, went out canvassing and leaflet dropping. Their presence made a huge difference across the country,” Clodagh Murray, Chairperson of Dublin Fingal Young Fine Gael said.

There isn’t a student in the country that this referendum didn’t affect. This time it was personal. Themselves, family, friends, most students know an LGBT person, whether they are aware of it or not.

Annie Hoey, Vice President for Equality and Citizenship of the USI, led their campaign, “This was the first time a lot of students participated in the political process,” she said.

“They saw a really tangible outcome, literally within minutes. That has shown students, if I participate in this political process, I actually can be a part of a really big change,” she said.

In a survey taken for this story, 71pc of students stated that since the referendum they have found themselves with a heightened interest in political matters.

Approximately 85pc surveyed said that they feel that students will continue to actively campaign for social issues, following the referendum.

"The marriage referendum seemed to wake young people in Ireland up," one student that was surveyed said. "We witnessed first hand that our vote can make a change so we can live in the society that we want. We will remember that feeling in future referendums and elections.”

A campaign has begun to repeal the 8th Amendment. Whether to legalise abortion or not is the next major social political issue on the cards for Ireland.

The USI are currently working to get all individual universities on board with having official stances on the 8th Amendment.

They are beginning a process quite like what they did four years ago when they began their work for marriage equality.

Last October, University College Cork held a referendum on whether the Students’ Union should hold a stance on abortion. It passed with 86pc in favour.

The USI are also working to set up individual groups on each campus to campaign on the 8th Amendment, quite like the LGBT societies already in place for the marriage referendum.

Students that were so deeply involved in the marriage equality campaign have gained the skills and social political knowledge to get new campaigns up and running, whereas they would not have had such an urge to or even the ability to do so in the past.

Speculation can be made about the impact the marriage referendum will have in the future of student’s engagement in politics. However, it’s impossible to determine whether students will actually continue to be so active in political movements.

One thing is certain, the marriage referendum sparked something within university students.

With much talk happening regarding the legalisation of abortion in Ireland through campaigns such as Repeal the 8th, and with the marriage referendum so fresh in the minds of students across Ireland, it’s with little doubt that many students will rise to the forefront and continue to commit themselves to political engagement in Ireland.

With thanks to Campus.ie

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