I welcome the opportunity to speak on what is a momentous occasion in the Dáil, when we as legislators are giving effect to the people’s decision to amend our Constitution. We must remember that for the main part our Constitution is held very dearly by all our citizens, and to amend it is never a decision which has been taken lightly. If we consider today as a momentous occasion in terms of what we are doing as legislators, it is only in the ha’penny place when we consider what a momentous occasion it was on that day when we as a country were the first in the whole of the world to vote to give people of the same sex a right to marriage. It is not often that we lead the way as a country, and it was a very proud, momentous and emotional day for tens of thousands of people directly affected by this decision and their friends and families.
For me, the decision was all about equality and nothing else. Equality goes to the very core of true republican values. This is why I was more than happy to play an active part in the campaign. It follows a proud tradition of my party, which initiated giving rights to LGBT people. It goes back to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1992, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the civil partnership Act of 2010. These were all important steps in the process. They laid the foundation for what we voted on a number of months ago. I congratulate the Minister who took responsibility in this regard, and I congratulate everybody of all political parties and none. In particular I congratulate the Yes Equality team. The campaign was very different from a general, local or presidential election campaign. I have participated in many campaigns but none quite like this. I had never seen the level of enthusiasm, energy and positivity. It was very positive and very good to be involved in it.
I began by being invited to attend a meeting at the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar. Going in, I was not quite sure how many people would turn up, what would be the age demographic of those who would turn up or how the campaign would move on from there. I did not know whether it would just be about public meetings, the Yes Equality bus moving from town to town and village to village or, like so many other referendum campaigns, meeting people on the streets and in shopping centres.
It was not like that; it was about a very dynamic, passionate and committed group of people from all generations. It was not just about the young. One evening I went out with three different generations of one family who all wanted to sow a message of love and demonstrate a message of equality. They wanted to share their deepest and most personal experiences with people at the doors as to why there were good reasons to vote “Yes” and it would be appropriate to change the Constitution. It was about giving every citizen of the country, regardless of sexual orientation, the same right.
I want to give very sincere thanks to the Yes Equality group in Longford and Westmeath for allowing me to be part of that campaign. It was a great honour and privilege, and it provided a great learning curve. Certainly, if I can bring the same level of enthusiasm and vigour to my next campaign – my re-election to his House – I would be quite happy. As I stated, it was quite enlightening to see the different generations of people who got involved, from the young to middle-aged to older people. This affected everybody, regardless of their background, professional standing or so-called economic security. That contributed to the successful campaign.
There is one note of caution and I wrote to the Minister at the time about this. We must acknowledge that almost 40% of people, for whatever reason, did not feel that this was appropriate. It is obvious that I do not share their view, as I campaigned and articulated reasons for a “Yes” vote. Nevertheless, we must respect the views of these people. One of the predominant fears within this group arose because people have deeply held religious convictions. This was evident from people in my church – the Catholic Church – as well as from members of the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland. There was a fear that if the constitutional amendment came about, they might be forced into performing marriages within those churches, but that was not true. I thank the Minister for replying to me at the time to outline why that was not true. This was about civil marriage and equality for all our people.
The campaign also demonstrated a new interest in politics, particularly from a section of society that would not normally have been interested in politics. This section would quite often have argued that politics was not for its people and it does not affect them. This process clearly showed that decisions taken in this House and effected by way of referendum have a direct consequence and a real effect on people’s lives. It really hit home to me just how this could have a positive and dramatic effect on people’s lives. At the count at Keenagh, people from the LGBT group who had been campaigning broke down and cried while partners hugged and kissed each other. They realised they were accepted as being the same as everybody else, with the same entitlements. Although I had been involved with the group throughout the campaign, it was only at that moment – when the result was declared locally in Keenagh and on a national level – we could see the positivity, happiness and sense of accomplishment. There was also a feeling that these people belonged, which was very powerful. I was delighted to be involved with the campaign and I compliment everybody across all political parties and none on it. I especially compliment Yes Equality because from the very beginning those people drove the campaign and shared the most intimate personal stories, as I witnessed at the doors. They wanted to show this to people who had reservations about voting “Yes”, and this proved that when people are open and honest with the population, they will be accepted, respected and supported. It is a momentous day and I am delighted to offer my few words in support of today’s legislation.