FERGUS FINLAY: Yes we can be brave not afraid, open not closed. All we need is love

'Mrs Brown's Boys' star Rory Cowan, who plays Mrs Brown's son Rory, at the opening of the Yes Equality shop in StStephen's Green, Dublin.Picture: Paul Sharp/Sharppix

It’s simple. If I’m heterosexual, I can get married to the person I love. If I’m not, I can’t, writes Fergus Finlay

Over the last 35 years or so, I suppose I’ve done bits and pieces in a couple of dozen local, general, and presidential elections, and more referenda than I can remember. I can recall many happy memories, although a few have created scar tissue around my soul. But every now and again, things happen that make you realise you’re fighting alongside the good guys.

Last Friday night, a small group of us spent a couple of hours canvassing people at the Luas in St Stephen’s Green and around the top of Grafton Street. Again and again, people politely declined my offer of a Vote Yes leaflet. But they were smiling, and dozens of them were showing me that they already had their Yes or Tá badges on their lapels.

It was amazing – the kind of experience that sends you home convinced that this cause is just. That’s not a predictor of the outcome, of course, but it was an extraordinary measure of the commitment and engagement that people are bringing to this debate. Half a million of these little plastic badges have been distributed, and they’re being worn with pride everywhere. I’ve never been involved in a campaign before, in my entire life, where so many ordinary citizens had decided not just to vote for the cause but to join the movement, wearing their Yes badge as if it were a badge of honour.

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And it is. I’ll write in more detail about the campaign when it’s over, but it has been a uniquely inspirational honour to watch the leadership being displayed by people such as Brian Sheehan and Gráinne Healy, two people who have sought nothing for themselves but have built a huge and diverse movement.

And it has been uniquely inspirational to walk behind and alongside a group of people who have endured oppression, bullying, victimisation, and marginalisation for generations, and who are now standing up and demanding an end to this inequality. Gay and lesbian people may be a minority in Ireland, but their struggle for equality has struck a huge chord with thousands of Irish people who are showing solidarity with them in dozens of different ways.

They absolutely deserve to win, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. They have made an unanswerable case and there’s no logical, legal, or constitutional reason to vote no. All of the independent authorities have confirmed that a yes vote poses no risk whatever to children or to the traditional family, and a yes vote will oblige no church or religion to change its teaching or practice in any way.

But still fear is out there. There can equally be no doubt that the opinion polls over this past weekend are reflecting that fear. And the no campaigners will intensify their efforts to sow fear and confusion over the next few days. And if that won’t work, they’ll try anything else.

How many times have you heard, for instance, that rich Americans are pouring millions into trying to buy a yes vote for some sinister reason? These stories are a reference to Chuck Feeney and the philanthropy he founded, Atlantic Philanthropies.

Chuck Feeney is an Irish-American known for his modesty and shyness. He made an enormous amount of money from duty-free shops, and in mid-life he decided to give his entire fortune away. He invested in the peace process in Ireland and, in his quiet way, he was a powerful persuader for peace at critical moments.

The philanthropy he founded, Atlantic Philanthropies, initially invested in excellence in education in different parts of the world, and then in making life better for people who had been made vulnerable by lives at the margins — children, older people, people with disabilities, people who had suffered discrimination, like gay people. It invested in the organisations working in these areas (including the one I work for) to ensure the work was of the highest quality, was evaluated, and was delivering results.

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What it doesn’t do is buy elections, and it doesn’t buy referendums. It would be illegal, apart from anything else, to seek to influence the outcome of a referendum directly. It openly and transparently (you can find the reports everywhere) invests in education, awareness, and capacity building. But once a referendum campaign starts, it must back away, and that’s what it does.

The people who are orchestrating this ‘rich American’ campaign know the truth, and they know how many lives have been transformed for the better, over many years, by the shy, quiet admirable work of Chuck Feeney. That doesn’t stop them misrepresenting the truth day after day.

It’s that same misrepresentation that has some of them now pretending to be victims. When you think of the history of persecution and oppression of gay people in Ireland, and throughout the world, it really is astonishing to listen to bishops telling the RTÉ News, as one did on Sunday night, that people are afraid to say they’re voting no. Or to read a distinguished columnist in The Irish Times telling us all to be afraid of the thought police.

Actually it’s more than astonishing. People who have been oppressed for generations, who have lived with the fear of revealing their identities and their sexual orientation, are now being branded as the thought police.

The intention, of course, is to try to persuade us that if we vote yes, we will be caught up in a world where the Church will be prevented from teaching what it has always taught, and where nobody will ever be allowed to express a dissenting view.

It’s not the Ireland I recognise — but it’s typical of the tactics of those who will say or do anything to defeat change.

By the time we go to the polls on Friday, all the technical arguments will have been dealt with. We can read the documents sent to us by the independent commission, and there’s no questions left unanswered.

Except one. What gay and lesbian people are asking us to do, at the end of the day, is pretty simple. Can we live and let live? Can we agree that the rights we take for granted should be shared on an equal and open basis?

It’s as simple today as it was at the start of the campaign. If I’m heterosexual, I can get married to the person I love. If I’m not, I can’t. After all the debate and argument, that’s the only issue left.

Uniquely, in the whole world, it is us that is being asked the question. Not a government, not a politician, not the civil service or the lawyers or the courts. Not a polling company, not the media, not the commentators of the experts. Us. The people.

We, the people, can choose to be open or closed, to be brave or afraid, to have hope or anxiety, to choose love or to choose indifference, to look to the future or to cling to the past. We can speak, or we can stay silent. We can look our friends in the eye, or we can avert our gaze. We can say no. Or we can say, with a full heart, yes.

It’s simple. If I’m heterosexual, I can get married to the person I love. If I’m not, I can’t.

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