MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Marriage Referendum: Much-maligned Middle Ireland emerges blinking into the dawn of a new world

The reaction to the constituency polls on Saturday resembled the overthrow of an old, despotic regime, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

ON SATURDAY, the courtyard in Dublin Castle resembled a scene from a new, young country.

Throngs of people, drawn largely but not exclusively from a younger demographic, poured onto the ancient cobblestones to monitor results from a national poll. A big screen relayed results from the constituencies, each new colour-coded yes eliciting another whoop of joy, as if this was the first free vote following the overthrow of a despotic regime.

A phalanx of foreign media prowled through the crowd with microphones, another sure sign that a small, otherwise largely inconsequential country was experiencing major change. And the atmosphere lurched between carnival and giddy, all carried off with ne’er a drop of booze in sight.

Politicians were greeted like liberating tribunes. You never would have thought that politics was a somewhat discredited trade in recent years. When the youthful Minister for Health was spotted arriving, a growling cheer spread across the yard. This is the man with ultimate responsibility for a system that is creaking and leaking scandals. Yet a chant quickly went up: “Leo, Leo, Leo…”

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The biggest greetings were reserved for old warriors. Just a few short years ago, Katherine Zappone and Anne Louise Gilligan brought their love to the highest court in the land in an attempt to have it validated in marriage, yet were rejected. When they mounted to broadcasting gantry at the front of the yard, Zappone shook a fist of victory.

The long struggle was over. Victory was theirs.

Marriage Referendum: Much-maligned Middle Ireland emerges blinking into the dawn of a new world

And then there was David Norris, the secular Moses who had set out on a lonely pilgrimage decades ago to bring an oppressed people to their promised land. Ill-health prevented Norris from occupying a frontline role in this campaign, but his unrivalled status in the struggle against discrimination is assured. When he was in his prime, the courtyard of Dublin Castle would have been as likely to fill up with a lynch mob determined to have him incarcerated lest he contaminate young minds.

The greeting for Norris was primal. He mounted the gantry, gripped a railing, leaned out and, like a figure from a black and white newsreel, addressed the crowd without the aid of microphone. His voice echoed across the yard as he professed his pride in being Irish, delivered with the authority of one who had journeyed the long haul from public contempt and ridicule to national affection, and the sweetest of victories.

On one level, it was all a cocoon for a day. The next morning, the country woke up still struggling to rediscover its soul in the wake of the existential crisis of recent years. Much of the talk about equality is blather. The referendum represented a giant leap forward for one minority that has, through the darkest years, suffered terrible discrimination. But equality, even in its loosest sense, remains a concept under siege from the fallout of the economic collapse.

But there is no denying the lift, however fleeting, that Friday’s vote delivered. The only comparable occasion in which a carnival atmosphere briefly permeated the country was Italia 90, and that was in reaction to sport, the froth, as opposed to the body, of life.

The other byproduct of the campaign is the engagement of youth in the political process. More than 70,000 names were added to the supplementary electoral register. Canvassing teams out pushing a yes vote were top heavy with younger recruits. The issue quite obviously energised that demographic like no other.

If this engagement carries over into general politics, it will certainly inject a shot of energy into the process. It is no coincidence that one of the cohorts worst hit by cuts and recession has been the younger demographic. Their failure to engage with the political process left them an easy, low cost, target. Now is their chance to assert electoral power.

Ultimately though, it was not the engagement of the young voters that made the biggest impact on the referendum. Middle Ireland, and particularly middle-aged Ireland, was the deciding factor.

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Therein the real change was signalled. Young Ireland had precious little internal struggles to address. They came of age in a world shrunk through communications, and in a country opened up by emigration and diversity. Their parents long lived in a different country, and this poll forced many of them to reassess received wisdoms and certainties.

They were bombarded with fear that their world would be transformed irrevocably and irretrievably. The opposing option was to consider real lives being lived, rather than theoretical lives that might never come to pass.

In this vein, the intervention of mothers such as Mary McAleese, fathers such as Tom Curran, the general secretary of Fine Gael, and that of journalist Ursula Halligan were crucial. All professed themselves committed Catholics. All grew up in an Ireland where homosexuality was still regarded as a “condition” at best, a form of deviancy at worse. All had received personal insights in a world they would never otherwise have regarded as theirs.

McAleese, whose son wrote about his sexuality during the campaign, deftly brought children into her call for a yes vote. The no side had said it was all about children. McAleese thought so too.

“It is a debate about children, people have been saying it’s about children — and we [she and husband Martin] believe it to be about Ireland’s gay children and about their future and about the kind of future we want for Ireland. We want, in the words of the Proclamation: ‘The children of a nation to be cherished equally’.”

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Curran made a powerful contribution from the perspective of the father of a gay man and a product straight out of conservative Ireland. Yesterday he told Miriam O’Callaghan why he felt compelled to do so.

“I decided not to be anonymous,” he said. “[I wanted] to make a point, to talk to dads like me, committee Catholics like me.”

Halligan wrote and spoke of the repression of her sexuality all the way into her middle age, and the mark it had left on her life. Her contribution was, on one level, heartbreaking, but it also illuminated that the vote was about real lives, not scriptures, real love and compassion, not fear and loathing.

A new Ireland was not born with Friday’s vote, but an old one was taken out and dusted down; a sense of community, an instinct towards decency, a base regard for the struggles of others. These concepts have long been in the national psyche, but too often were sacrificed when thrust against authoritarian voices that claimed to speak on behalf of the greater good.

Not this time.

Not anymore.

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