Book review – Healy et al, Ireland Says Yes (2015)

Oliver ClarkeOliver Clarke is a UCD Politics and History Joint Major. 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.

The Marriage Equality Referendum which took place on 22nd May 2015 was a seminal moment in Irish politics. The referendum on whether to allow two people regardless of their sex to be married was passed by a convincing margin of 62 per cent to 38 per cent. This was a victory for all gay people in the country and in turn inspired many other Western countries to seek marriage equality in their nations. Ireland was the first country in the world to pass marriage equality legislation by popular vote, which made international headlines. Many people worked hard to lobby and seek change in homosexual couples’ marital status over the decades, from politicians to awareness groups, and this victory was their reward. Indeed, the scenes at Dublin Castle post-referendum illustrate the joy, relief, and sheer euphoria experienced by all those who sought marriage equality. The outcome also signified something wider for many people, which is that homosexuals need no longer feel they had to suppress who they really were; many of those who had been afraid of coming out as gay to family and friends experienced a newfound confidence. Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won is written by the three leaders of the Yes Equality campaign, Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan, and Noel Whelan, and it chronicles the inside story of the referendum campaign. This book is an excellent account of the work that went into running the Yes Equality campaign, from the leadership of the campaign right down to the local canvassers.

One of the most striking elements of this campaign was the level of political mobilisation seen. Across all demographics, but particularly among young voters, there was a marked increase in those registering to vote and indeed voting on polling day. This was helped by the efforts of the Yes campaign; once Healy, Sheehan and Whelan had consolidated their position on the campaign trail, they made a strategic decision that their next move should be a registration drive to ensure that those they expected to vote yes were registered to vote. It was this direct engagement with young people, using social media as well as traditional media, which ensured success in this element of the campaign. Polling indicated that most young people were liberal leaning and would vote yes, whereas those in older demographics were more conservative. While this is not unusual in a comparative sense, one of the successes of the campaign was the targeting of undecided voters in these older demographics using a clever campaign of advertisements. The slogan ‘Standing Up For Your Children’ evoked a sense of compassion amongst older parents who perhaps did not have a gay family member, but could see the impact this referendum could have on those families who did. This aspect of the campaign was a success in turning many these undecided and potential No votes to the Yes side.

In a broader sense the political mobilisation of the youth was rather distinctive. There was a fervour surrounding this referendum of a sort that would not accompany a general election for example. One thing that can be learned from this campaign is the extent to which social media can be used to encourage voters to a particular side, and indeed to vote at all. Twitter, Facebook and online advertisements were utilised extensively, and the campaign’s strategic planning on this front is discussed at length throughout the book. The efficacy of trending hashtags relating to the Marriage Equality Referendum both in Ireland and abroad provided a useful lesson that attracted cross-national attention; clearly, use of social media in all political matters can only gain in importance in political campaigning from now on.

The authors outline how their campaign emphasised a non-confrontational approach. They believed this was important because they did not want the public to feel they were being forced or told how to vote. The solution devised was arguably a masterstroke, and would set the theme going forward. The ‘I’m Voting Yes. Ask Me Why’ initiative was deliberately non-confrontational. Rather, instead of the campaign telling people to vote yes and listing reasons why, this approach invited those who were undecided into a more casual and open-ended conversation involving the reasons why any one person was voting yes. This promoted discussion, and as the authors argue, was one of the most effective elements of the campaign. The nature of the issue this time may limit the value of this open-ended approach in future referendums. However, given its success in the Yes Equality campaign, it may prove useful to incorporate at least some similar open-ended and dialogical elements into future political campaigns.

The penultimate chapter, ‘Truly a Nation of Equals’, offers some final remarks on the entire campaign written and this would have brought the book to a satisfying conclusion. A very short last chapter, outlining the Yes Equality Roscommon’s reasons for failing to secure a Yes vote in that constituency (by quite a small margin), strikes an unnecessarily apologetic tone. Why the authors felt the need to finish the book on such a negative note is puzzling. Overall though, the book gives a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a referendum campaign and the work and dedication of those involved. This insider perspective would be of great interest not only to those who wish to understand how change came about, but would also be of particular benefit to any future political campaign organisers.

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