Katie Rabasca is a Study Abroad Engineering student at UCD. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.
Healy, Gráinne, Sheehan, Brian & Whelan, Noel (2015) Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won, Dublin, Irish Academic Press/ Merrion Press.
On May 23, 2015, twenty-two years after homosexuality was decriminalized, Irish citizens voted to amend their constitution so that same-sex marriage would be recognized. In Ireland Says Yes, Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, insiders and activists, record the journey of the Yes Equality campaign towards the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015. They take us through the campaign from the Constitutional Convention in April 2013, where advocates for marriage equality convinced the delegates to request a constitutional amendment from the government to include same sex marriage, through to the dramatic outcome of the count on May 23, 2015. The narrative is based on a series of personal anecdotes from campaign workers and volunteers, as well as their reactions to major events. The book had an incredibly fast turnaround: it was published on November 30 2015, only five months after the referendum was passed. It has some signs of having been written very quickly, but despite this Ireland says Yes is an insightful and personal look at the Yes side of the campaign.
At first it seems that the story will be told chronologically, but this is not actually the case: some sections cover one or two months, others span one to years, and they frequently backtrack, or go over the same time-period multiple times. For example, one chapter brings the reader up to date on events through to March 2015 – and then immediately backtracks several months to the beginning of the canvassing campaign. While advertised as a ‘fast-paced narrative of all the drama, excitement and highs and lows’ of the campaign, poor organization can make it difficult for the reader to really feel this: if anything, the drama is downplayed too much in the first half of the book. But the power of this campaign came from engagement with the Irish public through social media, through canvassing activities by activists, and in ordinary conversations up and down the country, and this is vividly communicated in the second half of the book.
From the beginning, the Yes Equality campaign had to make some important strategic choices about how to position itself. An immense amount of planning and research went into this, reflecting seriously on many other failed and successful campaigns for marriage equality around the world. Early on, the main strategists decided that the campaign had to be ‘soft’ as they could be easily portrayed as ‘nasty’. They cautioned canvassers, debaters, and supporters on social media against lashing out at the opposition. This strategy was a roaring success. An article published shortly after the referendum was passed quoted Father Iggy O’Donovan, an Augustinian priest, saying that this referendum was ‘the most reasoned, with pretty civilized debates’, that Ireland had seen in a long time. Little did they know that this was a deliberate strategy right from the start.
Ireland Says Yes really shines in its portrayal of the personal aspects of the marriage referendum. In a chapter on ‘The Power of Personal Stories: Some Old, Some New,’ we read about some of the public figures who came out because of the campaign. Ursula Halligan’s story about how and why she decided to publicly come out is heartbreaking, and touched many at the time: ‘If Ireland votes yes, it will be about much more than marriage. It will end institutional homophobia’. Politicians Pat Carey and Leo Varadkar also came out publicly at this time, and were both in favour of marriage equality. These revelations spurred many others to begin to offer public support to the Yes side, through community dialogue and on social media. It was this grassroots aspect of the campaign that made it truly successful, for without the support at the local level, and without actively engaging people across the whole society, the referendum never would have been successful.
The book is an insider account by activists who worked for Yes Equality, and it’s clear from the outset that this is going to be a book about the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote and not about the referendum in its entirety. To get the full picture of the marriage equality referendum debate, a reader would certainly have to rely on other sources. Nonetheless, the No point of view is treated quite fairly, and the No side is not unfairly vilified or misquoted. Despite its rather rushed feel, Ireland Says Yes is an honest and informative insiders’ depiction of the Yes Equality campaign by some of the key people who made it happen.