Former USI president, Laura Harmon, recounts the phenomenal student campaigns which paved the way for marriage equality five years ago.
The air was thick and heavy on May 22nd 2015. There was a tension in the atmosphere. There was so much at stake. I remember going to my favourite park, the War Memorial Gardens in Dublin 8, alone to watch the sunset on what had been the most intense and vibrant campaign I’d ever been involved in. I think we all went to bed that night knowing that the impending result would change our lives forever and, as we tossed and turned, we hoped that tomorrow, Ireland would become a better place.
The Union of Students in Ireland was no stranger to campaigning for LGBTQ equality and had highlighted the need for marriage equality as far back as the 1970’s. Eamon Gilmore (later Labour Party leader and Tánaiste in Government), during his tenure as USI president, had called for marriage equality in 1977. The Union of Students in Ireland was also active in the lead up to decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1993.
It was my privilege to be able to work for students and on USI’s marriage equality campaign in the three years leading up to the 2015 referendum. My colleagues and I were deeply conscious and proud of the work that had been done by student leaders in the past and we knew we had a responsibility to ensure that the student movement did everything in our power to play our part in the referendum campaign.
Over the years, students’ unions passed motions on their campuses to support a Yes vote and this ensured that when it came to 2015, the entire student movement was united for the cause. The Union of Students in Ireland had been running Pink Training for over 20 years – the largest student Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer training event in Europe. Hundreds of students gather every year to learn about LGBTQ rights and to build networks.
In 2013, USI made a submission to the Constitutional Convention. Students told their stories in our submission about why marriage mattered to them and about why civil marriage equality was a student issue. Mental health was a big issue for young LGBTQ people and students and we knew that passing the referendum would send out a very positive and validating message to young LGBTQ people who were struggling with their sexuality and were being oppressed as a result.
It was an amazing feeling to be at the Constitutional Convention in April 2013 in Malahide when its members voted overwhelmingly in favour of holding a referendum to support the extension of marriage rights under the Irish Constitution to all couples regardless of gender. This was a big milestone on the road to a referendum.
The same year, USI unanimously passed its ‘Towards Marriage Equality 2015’ strategy at our annual Congress. Voter registration, training and canvassing were all identified as some of the core areas where students could make a real impact on the campaign.
In 2014/2015, student leaders directly registered 27,663 students to vote and handed out tens of thousands more forms. It was recognised by many as one of the most effective voter registration campaigns that had ever been seen in Ireland. Queues and queues of students were lining up to register to vote. Student leaders and LGBTQ societies worked tirelessly to register as many new voters as possible and many college campuses were successful in lobbying to get exam dates moved so that students could travel home to vote.
In January 2015, USI launched the student ‘Make Grá The Law’ campaign in a packed Wood Quay, the title of which was the brainchild of Síona Cahill, the then Welfare and Equality Officer in Maynooth Students’ Union. We launched our voteforlove.ie website also. We were overwhelmed with the enthusiasm that the student body had for the cause and marriage equality was the student movement’s priority campaign for 2015. USI also ran a successful media campaign, also targeting the Irish language media via our Irish language officer, Feidhlim Seoighe.
One of my most memorable events from the campaign was the Big Love event the Union of Students in Ireland ran in Smithfield to create the biggest human love heart on April 23, 2015. This was the idea of Brighid Breathnach, a former USI Education Officer. Despite the lashing rain, in an otherwise sunny month, over 500 people turned up to show they supported a Yes vote. The aerial photograph of our heart made the papers and was a welcome positive lift in a campaign that was often stressful for members of the LGBTQ community who had to listen day in, day out to our rights being debated in the national media.
The momentum was building fast in the final weeks. USI and SIPTU unveiled our giant Students for Marriage Equality ‘Yes’ banner on Liberty Hall in early May. Students were canvassing with their local Yes Equality groups in their communities and talking to their peers and to their families. The then USI Equality and Citizenship Officer, Annie Hoey worked to mobilise students across the country. She organised USI’s flagship Pink Training event in Cork in November 2014. The weekend conference focused heavily on training students in campaigning for a Yes vote and it was attended by a record number of students. In the months leading up to the vote, she traveled across the country conducting training events for students on messaging and canvassing. Annie also came up with the idea of ‘voter motor,’ a campaign that was launched by USI in the final week of the campaign to encourage people to give their fellow citizens a lift to the polling stations.
All of us could rest easy knowing that we had done everything in our power to get the vote out and to promote a Yes vote. And it was clear from the outset that we had won when the first of the ballot boxes were opened in count centres across the country. I watched eagerly that morning to see the results of my home constituency of Cork North West coming through, where I had voted Yes with all of my family the day before in the primary school in which I spent my childhood where I never heard the word gay used in a positive manner.
The Irish people had spoken and love had won out handsomely in the end. Couples kissed, friends embraced, glitter was thrown, cameras flashed, tears of happiness were shed and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was a proud day to be Irish and to be a member of our LGBTQ community. For the first time in our lives, we felt equal.
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