Monday 23 September 2019

Now I'm out of step in the new Proud Gay Eire

Guilty conscience is the end result of failing to support the Yes vote in the marriage referendum

Campaign: Brian Sheehan of Glen who spearheaded the Yes victory Photo: David Conachy
Campaign: Brian Sheehan of Glen who spearheaded the Yes victory Photo: David Conachy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

A close friend is still angry with me because I didn't vote Yes in the Same Sex Referendum.

I somehow betrayed her gay son by not supporting her family, even though I hold the old-fashioned, even bigoted, belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

I feel even worse after meeting Brian Sheehan, one of those who did most to induce this warm feeling that we should all support our gay family, relatives or friends and No was not a tolerant option.

As we sit across from each other in Brooks Hotel in central Dublin, I don't begrudge him his victory. In fact I was secretly glad they won because I have a guilty conscience about my own position, even if I wasn't prepared to change it.

Sheehan, a former bank official originally from Kilrush, Co Clare, has now co-authored a book with Noel Whelan and Grainne Healy, Ireland Says Yes: The inside story of how the vote for marriage equality was won.

Sceptics might suggest that the Yes Referendum victory was an artfully constructed 'don't hit me while I'm holding a baby' sort of campaign which love bombed middle Ireland.

Looked at objectively the real question is, how could they have lost? All the political parties, the business and legal establishment, the entertainment industry, the trade unions, the vast majority of the media and a huge swathe of people disenchanted by the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Church supported the Yes campaign.

Added to that was the powerful use of personal testimony from such people as Mary McAleese and her son Justin, Tom Curran the General Secretary of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, Pat Carey and Ursula Halligan, telling their compelling stories.

Sheehan and his organisation the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) believed the Civil Partnership, which lasted for five years paved the way for the resounding referendum victory. Grainne Healy and her organisation Marriage Equality wanted to go all the way in one step. Together with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties they coalesced to spearhead a runaway victory.

"We set up a wide line - the tone, the message, the approach and then told people to go out and do your work, all of them picked up on that and we managed to avoid horrible spitting debates," he says.

For Sheehan the real heroes of the campaign were the woman in Ennis with two gay sons and a gay daughter who stood outside the church and urged a Yes vote; the people who boarded the Yes Bus; the 72-year-old man in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath who booked a room in a local hotel to run his own one-man campaign. Sheehan knew early in the campaign that the 'Real Ireland' is not the backward looking place many believe, but the front line of a new way of thinking. The Yes side were just so much better at embracing the hearts and minds of modern Ireland than the No side. They knew what they wanted and went about it cleverly; with money and a powerful organisational structure based on political know-how and passion.

The Catholic Church, they discovered can no longer bring out the vote, some of its most influential priests disagreed with the hierarchy's stance. Sheehan says there were instances of people "saying appalling things" to Yes campaigners, but these seem to have been the online trolls and the odd jeering from eejits smoking outside a pub.

"The result showed the generosity of the Irish people, opening up their hearts and minds - and many also understand that this is not the end," he says. But from growing up in an Ireland where being homosexual was a criminal offence he is now looking forward to a time when an organisation like Glen can "abolish itself" because it will no longer be needed. But it's not that time yet.

After spending some time with Brian Sheehan I do really feel bad about not supporting the Yes vote - now I kind of understand what it's like to be in a minority and all the guilt that involves.

Sunday Independent

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