Marriage Referendum: ‘This had a feeling of social revolution’

The people’s resounding approval of gay marriage was influenced by an energetic, orderly, and unprecedented campaign that points to a potential sea change in the future of Irish politics.

A “social revolution” was behind the yes campaign, say some, while others point to the “tsunami of support” that resulted in the largest turnout in the State in a referendum in over two decades.

Undoubtedly the detail in the results and steps leading up to it will be scrutinised by academics, political parties, and social justice campaigners both here and abroad for months to come.

So what was the magic in the yes campaign which resulted in the biggest referendum turnout since the vote on divorce in 1995?

Factors behind its drive included the prominent but simple use of social media, the mobilisation of the young vote, and the winning over of middle Ireland. The tone of its debate also remained calm.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar, the country’s first openly gay minister, was the first to attribute the yes vote to a greater change in culture. “To me this had the feeling of a social movement or a social revolution,” he said during the count at Dublin Castle on Saturday.

Pat Carey, a former Fianna Fáil minister, dismissed claims by the no side that millions of euro from abroad was allegedly pumped into groups and influenced the vote. It was the huge amounts of volunteers, many who were young, that swayed voters, he said.

“That’s where the tsunami started. While canvassing, I looked around and said ‘you could appoint a whole fresh cabinet with a group of these people’,” he said

Some of the Yes Equality campaign figures are startling and show the extent to which people became not only interested in the referendum itself but involved in canvassing.

Its YouTube videos were viewed over 1m times, and the movement disbursed 500,000 badges. Campaigners raised funds through online crowdfunding, taking in nearly €160,000 in small amounts. Its Facebook page got over 2,000 views a day. It also targeted 300 businesses.

This organised campaign saw a surge in young voters becoming involved, many of whom are thought to have made up the extra 66,000 who were added to the electoral register.

Crucially it was the personal story in the ground battle that seems to have been influential in getting people to support same-sex marriage.

Mr Varadkar said: “The biggest thing was the social mobilisation that went on; huge numbers of people getting involved in politics for the first time, knocking on doors, in particular those personal experiences.”

This was in contrast to the no campaign, which utilised the airwaves to make striking claims but was unable to convey the passion and personal situations of those canvasing at the doors with the yes side.

There were significant, deeply personal, and high-profile interventions during the campaign that helped the yes side. Former president Mary McAleese, whose son Justin is gay, called for a yes vote. TV3 reporter Ursula Halligan wrote in moving terms of her fears about coming out. Mr Varadkar and Mr Carey also told stories that touched many people.

A culmination of these factors resulted in large numbers of Irish citizens abroad coming home to vote in the referendum. The eyes of the world were watching “conservative” Ireland and expecting us to give marriage equality the thumbs down. But a more modern Ireland, an all-inclusive society (burnt from the recession but ready for a fresh start), became the first nation to approve gay marriage by popular vote.

It was a rainbow movement that helped to create a rainbow nation, as Tánaiste Joan Burton remarked. But what happens now to these new and re-energised voters, especially ahead of the next general election? There’s speculation about campaigners turning to politics or seeking election on social justice issues, such as gay rights or abortion. Maybe the social revolution is only just beginning.

Visit our special Referendum 2015 section for all the latest news and analysis

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