I was up to my eyes in Newstalk on Saturday morning, preparing for my turn to anchor referendum coverage, when I heard Senator David Norris chatting loudly as he waited to go on air.
His voice took me back to Trinity College, 25 years ago, when I heard him make a most beautiful speech at the University Philosophical Society; a debating club of which I was a member. His description of his love for his then partner Ezra moved me immensely. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal. Then, it really hit me. Norris was the first. I had to go over and shake his hand. “I didn’t think you’d live to see this day”, I offered. “Neither did I! I nearly died last year you know!” he exclaimed.
So I was particularly glad to hear him back on Newstalk this (Monday) morning with Pat Kenny; still gracious and full of good humour, defending the people of Roscommon-South Leitrim. The vote was slightly “no” in that constituency and the euphoria of Saturday had quickly turned to retribution on social media. Roscommon was coming off badly. Norris insisted that apart from the obvious demographics at play – it’s a constituency emptied of its youth by emigration – people were entitled to vote no and would have done so in good conscience. If there was any man in Ireland entitled to some bitter words, it was the Independent Senator, but he only had respect and a good joke about having to go to ghastly weddings. This is the role model. There’s no need to start hunting down the 37.5% of “no” voters.
On the other side, I was disappointed that while David Quinn got in quickly on Saturday with congratulations to the “yes” side, Ronan Mullen issued a press release complaining about foreign funding for GLEN and a lack of political representation for those opposing the referendum. The “no” side were up against it, but they had brilliant debaters and got their points across very well. In fairness, it wasn’t easy; especially for people like Tom Finnegan who hadn’t been out there before. They had the entire establishment against them. But they did a very effective job and shouldn’t complain.
In other words, I think grace both in victory and defeat is essential now. It was a bruising campaign. Let’s not make it a bruising victory.
Personally, I’ve never seen voters more torn. I had many conversations with people who would be naturally liberal but felt the “no” side were making legitimate points. Conversely I was surprised by some older people that I assumed were arch conservatives but were cheerfully voting “yes”. There was a level of debate, indecision and examinations of conscience that were a credit to voters. But it has left wounds on both sides and I think there’s an imperative that they be healed.
During the campaign itself there had been a lot of name-calling. I understand gay people found it difficult that the decision to grant them equality was being discussed at all. It must have been hard going, trying to persuade voters to give you a stamp of approval. Having to ask: not easy. But women, Northern Catholics, and black civil rights campaigners had been there before them.
Indeed, I thought Saeed Kamali Deghan made a great point in the Guardian when he quoted Ayn Rand who said; “individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority”.
But we had to have a referendum. I knew that most Irish people were decent and wanted to do the right thing. We’ve learned the hard way that messing with the constitution can have unforeseen consequences, and when it came to children, we learned the really hard way that denying them their true identity creates a wound from which some never recovered. People with reservations were entitled to ask questions without being verbally attacked. That might seem trivial to homosexuals who've been physically attacked for simply being themselves, but there was no other way around it. It was time to put on one’s brave face and campaign with dignity.
Unfortunately at times that didn’t happen. We had the Rory O’Neill “homophobe” incident and as just one example of what went on online, one prominent gay rights campaigner tweeted back in April “I'm not ok with idea that some hateful bigot expects me to shake his hand and smile as he prepares to question my right to love”. That approach wasn’t going to help public debate, especially as Middle Ireland was going to decide the vote.
The “yes” campaigners did an amazing job getting their vote out – especially the young vote that some feared would confuse a “like” on Facebook with a ballot paper. It was key that that worked and I’d like to commend Una Mullally for continuing to campaign when she was undergoing treatment for cancer. However, I’m convinced it was the interventions of conservative figures like Ursula Halligan, Mary McAleese, Tom Curran and Pat Carey who swung that middle ground.
But it would be a shame now if triumphalism and an “abortion next” approach cast a shadow over the victory and made the middle voters angry that they were being abused for veering towards no, or regret that they voted yes.
I would also caution any naïve view that Ireland is now without question a welcome home for homosexuals. The symbolism of the constitutional endorsement is significant. But I think it'll still be hard for young men and women to come to terms with the fact that they are gay. We made it easier, but it’s never going to be easy. In fact, it’s already been observed that the granting of LGBT rights can actually increase homophobic attacks either within those liberalising countries, or create a backlash in other more conservative countries like Russia.
In other words, polarisation will always make life difficult for minorities and the centre must hold. The priority now is to get everyone, liberals, libertarians, homosexuals and conservatives to put this social war behind them, and make social peace instead.