Saturday 18 November 2017

Young voters teach former pupil John a lesson in equality

John Lyons talking to first-time voters at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun
John Lyons talking to first-time voters at Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

The discussion was in stark contrast with the synchronised shout-fest on RTÉ the evening before.

The 'Claire Byrne Show' debate on marriage equality was awash with more red herrings about surrogacy and adoption than a trawler. The inclusion of these two issues in the referendum debate was confirmed yesterday as being a shoal of fishy flimflam by both the chair of the independent Adoption Authority and the chair of the independent Referendum Commission.

But yesterday another discussion took place at some remove from Montrose, in Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun where past pupil and local Labour TD John Lyons was talking to a group of pupils who'll be first-time voters in just over a week.

It was relaxed and informal, and John was peppered with questions and observations by the mixed-gender group who took the time to listen to his replies.

One pupil wanted to know why civil partnership wasn't enough for members of the gay community.

John explained how the previous weekend he asked his own mother why she was voting 'Yes' on May 22.

"And she said, 'well, I've seven children, John, and I want you to be treated the same as every one of your brothers and sisters - I want to know when I'm not around any more that if you find the person that you love, that you'll have the same protections that your married brothers and sisters have', " he recounted.

And John, who was one of the first openly gay TDs to be elected when he won his Dáil seat in 2011, added: "One of the biggest reasons I'm supporting a 'Yes' vote is when I was your age, I most certainly wasn't telling anybody about my sexuality."

Kelsey wanted to know why the issues of adoption and surrogacy were being brought into the debates.

"I don't understand why. They don't have anything to do with it," she reckoned.

John was diplomatic. "Unfortunately, sometimes people who don't want a referendum passed, they use all sorts of arguments to try and muddy the waters, so voters become confused."

Another pupil asked, "So it's nothing to do with gay people adopting babies?"

John shook his head. "If there's a 'Yes', the way people adopt in Ireland will still be the same next month and the month after that, as it is this month," he replied.

There were questions on the Constitution and on legislation, and other aspects of gay rights, and why Ireland is the first country in the world to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality.

But most strikingly, there was genuine bafflement from the teenagers on what were the compelling reasons to vote against the referendum.

"I can't think of any valid argument as to why someone would vote 'No'," offered 18-year-old Leon Doyle.

Next week will be Leon's first time to cast his ballot.

"We're not just voting in someone we don't know much about. Everyone knows someone who's gay, a friend or a cousin," he explained, adding that the referendum had opened up the subject for debate among families. "It's become something every house in Dublin is talking about," he said to nods of agreement from the group.

One of the younger students, 16-year-old Ian Hunt had conducted his own in-school poll, asking the students how they would vote if they were old enough to do so. The result was unequivocal, with 91pc voting 'Yes' and 9pc voting 'No'.

The engagement from the teenagers was striking - it was evident this was an issue to which they could relate.

Chances are - and it speaks volumes about the disconnect between people's everyday lives and the day-to-day business of politics - that if it was a general election taking place next Friday, a good proportion of all first-time voters would shrug and steer clear of the polling booths.

John Lyons agreed. "They just wouldn't be engaged in the same way if it was a general election. But they do care about this vote," he said.

Looking down the corridor of his old alma mater, John observed how things had changed since he was a pupil. "Ireland was a different place; you didn't have the support networks or the acceptance that exists now," he said.

"I remember when David Norris went on the 'Late Late' as the first gay man on telly it was almost as if someone with three eyes had got on to the show; everyone wanted to see what he looked like," he laughed. But this was a different school now, he said. "They run it on the principles of inclusion and respect."

On the wall beside where the discussion had taken place hung a large picture of long-time gay rights activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He would've felt quite at home there in the middle of the red herring-free debate.

Irish Independent

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