Sunday 22 April 2018

Ireland Says Yes by Gráinne Healy review - Inside the campaign for same-sex marriage

Politics: Ireland Says Yes, Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, Noel Whelan, Merrion Press, tpbk, 224 pages, €16.99

A gay couple kiss in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23, 2015 in Dublin
A gay couple kiss in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23, 2015 in Dublin
Ireland Says Yes

One Saturday morning in April 2013, I dragged myself out of bed to attend the Constitutional Convention's discussion on same-sex marriage at the Grand Hotel in Malahide. I was sceptical, perceiving the convention as a sop to the electorate to conceal the fact there would be no meaningful political reform in the lifetime of the 31st Dáil.

I was right about the lack of political reform. I was wrong about the convention, chaired by then Concern CEO Tom Arnold, which that weekend set the tone for a passionate and emotive yet deeply respectful and informed debate on what was, even then, still a divisive social issue for many.

Two years later, Ireland, which only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, entered the history books as the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by a popular vote.

Ireland Says Yes: the Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality was Won is the first of no doubt many drafts of the history of marriage equality.

It is less of a long gaze back and more of a rollercoaster account of how three groups - the Gay and Lesbian Network, Marriage Equality and the Irish Council of Civil Liberties - joined forces at the Constitutional Convention to maximise a 30-minute speaking slot and ended up forming a coalition to convince the country to say Yes.

Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan, co-directors of the Yes Equality campaign, and Noel Whelan, the well-known lawyer, author and political commentator who served as its strategic adviser, author the book. The trio begins with an important and necessary disclaimer, namely that as an initial and patently insider account, the book is inevitably partial and subjective.

However, what follows next is a masterclass on how, as Dale Carnegie might have advised, to win friends and influence people.

There were many ingredients to the marriage equality campaign's success. Arguably the defining characteristic of the campaign, however, was the strategic decision to emulate the convention by setting a reassuring tone, one that would engage with voters' doubts, especially on concerns about family, adoption and surrogacy.

The book reveals the campaign's tactical obsession with maintaining a positive, soft tone, a position that created internal tensions as the debate reached a fraught peak.

But the campaign stuck with its 'message bible', drawing on similar initiatives in the US, and reveals how it harnessed public support through the power of the personal story and social media.

For me, it was story that won the referendum, with powerful contributions from people such as Health Minister Leo Varadkar, broadcaster Ursula Halligan and former Fianna Fáil Minister Pat Carey, who all came out during the campaign. High-profile endorsements such as that by former President Mary McAleese, whose son Justin McAleese is gay, were critical.

However, it was ordinary families, supported by the campaign, which helped conquer opposition by reframing family values - the No side's trump card - as ones that were inclusive of gay children and grandchildren.

Political anoraks will relish the intricacies of the campaign, including its criticisms of what it describes as a 'Punch and Judy' approach to some of the issues by RTÉ. Others will express incredulity at how, weeks away from the poll, the Coalition did not have sufficient funds to mount a national poster campaign. This is especially amid howls of protest by the No side during the campaign that organisations such as GLEN had historically secured significant support from philanthropists such as US billionaire Chuck Feeeney.

Disclosures to the Standards in Public Office will reveal how successful the fundraising campaign ultimately was.

In the end, however, this was a people's referendum.

And it is personal stories, including the journey of the three authors, are what make this account of the marriage equality referendum a touching, poignant and necessary one.

Dearbhail McDonald is Associate Editor & Legal Editor of the Irish Independent

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