What’s next on the rights agenda?

There’s a great untapped appetite for real action to protect human rights and equality, writes Mark Kelly.

IT WAS a very Good Friday. Saturday was even better. Shortly after 9am, the marriage equality and presidential age ballot papers (white for the weddings; green for the Park) poured from the boxes and the Yes Equality team held its breath.

I stood behind tally counter Rhonda Donaghy and counted silently while she called each vote: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes… no… yes, yes, yes… Every softly- spoken no felt like a little death, but there were so few that before Rhonda was even halfway through I could feel my heart lift. When she stopped, that first box from Dublin Central told a story we had barely dared believe could be true: Yes, 332; no 88. Maybe it was a rogue box, an aberration? It wasn’t, of course. All around hall 8C at the RDS, broad smiles were emerging as it became clear that Dublin, at least, had voted yes by an overwhelming margin.

Rhonda by the way, is one of the unsung heroes of the campaign. I’d last seen her the previous evening on windy Sean O’Casey Bridge, trademark Yes sticker in her hair, determined to canvas until the close of polls. Thanks Rhonda.

What’s next on the rights agenda?

Unsung heroes have been a feature of this campaign. People like the members of Vote Yes Cavan, who grew from an LGBT community group into a campaigning force of nature. Did you see the giant yes sign that we used for our Dublin photoshoot on the final day of campaigning? It featured largely in most of our national newspapers and was seen around the world, from The New York Times and NBC News to ABC TV News in Australia. Was it imagined by spin doctors and lavishly created using the funds of a billionaire philanthropist? It was not. It was made in Cavan by a man called Vincent. And driven to Dublin in a truck by my colleague’s father, Tony. Thanks Vincent and Tony.

The landslide referendum victory for equality on Saturday began and grew in small places, close to home. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, GLEN, and Marriage Equality created the Yes Equality campaign which became a movement for equality. Of the 60,000-plus new voters added to the electoral register in the last few weeks, 80%-90% turned up to vote. And they voted for equality.

Politicians might wonder what this newly energised electorate will do next.

Outside the National Count Centre in Dublin Castle, TDs and senators basked in the unfamiliar glow of mass appreciation. A crowd of thousands of young people waved back at anyone who waved at them. They chanted the name of our health minister over and over again: Leo, Leo, Leo (out, out, out). They had come to Dublin Castle for equality and they stayed put until they got it.

Well, there’s an election coming up and if this referendum proves anything it’s that there’s a great untapped appetite for real action to protect human rights and equality. A thirst for it, actually, tangible during Yes Equality canvasses in some of the most deprived parts of our cities, and the remotest corners of our countryside.

There are election manifestos to be drafted now, programmes for government to be imagined. All political parties rallied behind the marriage equality referendum and they will reap political rewards. Imagine if their manifestos for the next election were to contain commitments to correct some of the other egregious equality violations that still blight our laws. How might this new electorate respond?

It was humbling to stand beside senator David Norris at the National Count Centre on Saturday and remember that it is only 22 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland. However, it still shocks me that it only happened in 1993, making Ireland the last country in Europe to take that very basic step.

How much longer must we wait for the amendment of an “ethos” exemption that legalises discrimination against gay and lesbian schoolteachers and hamstrings our medical professionals? When will Ireland finally provide women with safe and legal access to abortion? The new voters gathered at Dublin Castle on Saturday didn’t strike me as being in the mood to wait.

The marriage referendum vote is a wonder; a triumph for equality and an outright rejection of discrimination and prejudice. It puts this country in the vanguard of progress towards full protection of equality and human rights.

Let’s try to stay there, shall we?

Mark Kelly is the executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and a member of the campaign executive group of Yes Equality.


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