Monday 24 October 2016

Here's to those who changed a country one door at a time

Tiernan Brady

Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30

Thousands gather at the results of same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle
Thousands gather at the results of same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle

Last Saturday was a beautiful moment in Irish history. The outpouring of sheer joy at Dublin Castle was mirrored in towns and villages across the country as lesbian and gay people celebrated their first day as full and equal citizens in our Republic. They were joined by their families, friends and supporters of equality in scenes that have grabbed the world's imagination.

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The pictures also showed the real and not very secret weapon of the Yes campaign: thousands of people in every corner of the country determined to have their voices heard. Thousands of people who realised that simply voting was not going to be enough. They moved from being supporters of the campaign to being the campaign.

It was these people who went out every night for months and knocked on the doors of Ireland to say why marriage mattered to them and why we should vote Yes.

At the vast majority of the doors they were met by people impressed by their determination. There were less positive experiences, too. It is difficult for even the most seasoned campaigner when they are met with anger or condemnation. There were heroic individuals who walked up to doors to be told they were unnatural, disgraceful and worse, who then politely smiled, dusted themselves down and moved to the next door with the same drive: they were enough to humble the most hardened of us.

The heart of the Yes campaign was that the vote was about real people: members of our families, our friends, neighbours and work colleagues. Lesbian and gay people were not some group of people living on a rock looking at Ireland hoping to get in - we were here all along. We were and are the people who live on your street, who love our country, and cherish the communities we live in, just like everyone else. The army of canvassers on the streets night after night were the people who pulled back the curtains of Ireland and let others see that truth.

Their conversations changed hearts, minds and votes. They made space for people to ask questions - they explained why this mattered so much. They never lost their spirit or their good humour. And there were plenty behind the doors of Ireland that sustained them in their humour. From the woman who told a canvasser that, of course, she was voting Yes - "Sure it's not your fault you're the way you are" - to the man who was definitely voting Yes, but who tried to persuade the canvasser of the danger of marriage - "Are you sure you really want this?"

In Offaly a husband explained that while he would be voting Yes "herself inside is voting No". Herself inside emerged on cue and explained she'd changed her mind. "This is a small town, it took courage to canvass here and for that I'll vote Yes," she said.

In Westmeath a man followed the crew after being canvassed to say he had thought about the conversation and on reflection had changed his mind and would be voting Yes. On Dublin's southside an older man said he would be voting Yes, because "everyone has a right to have a go at making themselves happy or miserable".

There are other perks to the canvassing experience. These canvassers have never stood in so many hallways and porches in their lives. As one canvass leader said, at that very least the experience had given them wonderful ideas for redoing their house. Stories of offers of cake and biscuits, tea and other libations abounded. People in homes who never had the chance to tell anyone how their brother or aunt had left our country so that they could be who they were, and who cried as they thanked the people in their driveways for doing what they were doing. As they walked streets, lanes and boreens, knocking on door after door, they changed our country's perception of the people in our midst.

When the man stood up at the Cashel community centre meeting he made me think of an older version of my late father. As the debate began he had all his notes on why we should vote No with him. He was dignified and determined and the people in the room, from all points of view, talked and debated as he made his points. The following morning he emailed me to explain that he had listened to the arguments and the real stories of people and left as a Yes voter. That is where this was won. People across the country who set out not to defeat anyone, but rather to persuade everyone.

There will be many articles about key players and decisions in this campaign, but for me the heroes are the four people who stood in the rain at a Yes Equality table in Tinahely, Co Wicklow; the men and women who knocked doors in Dungloe, Co Donegal; and who talked to their neighbours in Kilmoyler, Co Tipperary. They changed everything utterly.

I sat after having coffee with some friends on Wednesday and two young men walked by holding hands and smiling, oblivious to us. I fought back tears as I thought of a thousand canvassers. "My God, look what they've done," I thought.

Tiernan Brady was the political director of Yes Equality and policy director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network

Irish Independent

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