FERGUS FINLAY: We made history – now let’s fight to end other inequalities

The crowd had been gathering in the square at Dublin Castle since before lunch-time on Saturday. It was the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in Ireland – we’re more used to seeing these kind of images from Paris or Athens or other, more colourful capitals. By the time the declaration was made, from a giant screen in the corner, you couldn’t move.

Throughout the afternoon the map on the giant screen kept turning green, constituency by constituency. Each change was greed by a huge roar.

But it was nothing compared to the huge, tumultuous applause when the returning officer announced that Ireland had voted yes, by a larger majority than any of us could have dreamed about.

As the applause died away, a silence fell. Out of that silence you could hear a single voice starting to sing Amhrán na bhFiann. It was taken up by more, and within seconds the strains of our national anthem soared across the square.

That was the moment I broke down. Irish citizens singing their own national anthem at a signal moment of inclusion. The moment when fear disappeared.

In every campaign for social change in my lifetime, we’ve had to confront the politics of fear. Sometimes fear won, sometimes it was beaten by the skin of our teeth. On Saturday it was vanquished, and I hope it will never raise its head again.

For sure, things happened on the yes side of this campaign that no-one in its leadership wanted to happen. Ugly things were said on social media, some posters were torn down. Those things were condemned again and again by the leaders of the yes campaign.

The people who led that campaign are among the most inspirational I’ve ever met. People like Kieran Rose, Brian Sheehan and Grainne Healy, Michael Barron, with all their immediate colleagues and most members of the team they built, have battled prejudice and discrimination all their adult lives, and they’ve done it with immense courage.

Given the chance, they led a civic society campaign with passion, clarity, dignity and above all honesty. They also ran a campaign that was full of style and fun – head and shoulders the best-led campaign I’ve been involved in for a quarter of a century.

A lot of public figures – many of them very brave, like Ursula Halligan, Pat Carey, and others – joined in the campaign and became its public face.

Politicians played a hugely significant role. (If there is one politician who deserves more credit than all the others, by the way, it is Eamon Gilmore. Saturday simply wouldn’t have happened without his doggedness and determination.)

But this was, in the end, a people’s campaign. You could see that everywhere.

You could see people campaigning for social change in their thousands, volunteering hours and days of their time.

You could see parents and grandparents considering what this might mean to their own families.

You could see people tuning in in their thousands to the arguments and debates on radio and television.

And in the end, we saw more than a million people asserting, with pride and confidence, that Ireland believes in equality. They wore their yes badges, and waved their rainbow flags, as a way of saying that we want no more discrimination in our country.

All my life I’ve been proud to be Irish and I was never more proud to be alive than I was on Saturday.

I was tempted to write again about some of the spectres raised by the no campaign. I won’t. I really think it’s essential to say to people – and to prove it now – that they have nothing to fear. All the specific issues raised during the campaign can and will be dealt with.

We’re not going to become a place where surrogate parenting replaces ordinary parenting, or where free speech is denied to Catholic preachers or teachers, or where children are raised without love and care and security.

Nothing we did on Saturday represents the beginning of a darker future.

But here’s the thing I learned over the last few weeks – and I’ll forgive you if you tell me I should always have known this. Every battle for equality is its own battle. People like me think of equality as an sort of indivisible concept. It isn’t though.

In fact it may not even be a real concept. It may be (I think is) the case that last Saturday we didn’t make Ireland equal – we ended one form of inequality instead.


Drag queen Panti Bliss, also known as gay rights activist Rory O'Neill, arrives at the Central Count Centre in Dublin Castle as votes are counted in the marriage equality referendum on Saturday.

I’m really proud that we did that, and we’re a much better place for it. But the question in my head this morning is what about all the other inequalities?

To put it another way. There’s a very large inequality agenda that still has to be tackled. Is there any possibility that we can begin to mobilise around that?

That we can apply the same skill and passion to ensuring that all forms of discrimination – legal, economic, infrastructural, policy, administrative, and financial have the same spotlight shone on them?

As I write this, for example, thousands of lone parents are terrified at what will happen later this year when “reforms” to lone parent support start to bite. We could end that fear at the stroke of a pen. It would mean reversing a budgetary decision, but it’s beyond question that it would be the right thing to do.

As I write this, hundreds of children who live in “reception centres” are being discriminated against in all sorts of ways, and are at risk. We could end that fear too.

As I write this, there are a thousand homeless children in Ireland. We could fix that. Yes, it will take money. Can you think of a better way of spending it?

As I write this, adults with an intellectual disability in Ireland are being discriminated against every day, by out-dated and heartless legislation that desperately needs reform. We could make that a priority right now.

As I write this, there are thousands of children who don’t have equal access to our educational system. They are children who have a constitutional right to a free education, but a right that it meaningless because it simply isn’t free. We could fix that.

There are many other inequality issues, in healthcare, childcare, affecting older people. But all of the issues I’ve mentioned above are on a government agenda right now, and ministers are working on them. None of them can be ruled out for lack of affordability – the only issue is urgency.

Now is the moment. None of us know how long this government has to go. It made history this week, be enabling the people to make a profound choice and to make a profound assertion about inequality and injustice.

Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, and all their colleagues acted as a brave and cohesive government when real leadership was needed. They’re still in charge of the inequality agenda. With a little bit of determination and some reordering of priorities, they could see an end to many more inequalities in the remainder of their term. It may not make global headline in the same way, but it would make a lasting and unforgettable difference.

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