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Ireland Says Yes

The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won
Gráinne Healy, Brian Sheehan & Noel Whelan
Merrion Press

Ireland Says YES


From Chapter 1: Constitutional Convention – 12th to 14th April 2013

Poised and elegant, Clare O'Connell stood up to give the most important speech of her life. Her parents, Grainne and Orla, listened in the viewing room downstairs. Clare began: 'My family is similar to yours. Except for one big difference. My parents are not allowed to get married. My family is not recognised. For the simple reason that my parents are two women.' She had the attention of everyone in the room that Saturday in April 2013 in the Grand Hotel in Malahide in north County Dublin. 'Marriage equality would mean that my parents, who are in a loving and committed relationship, could get married, just like anyone else's parents. But, most importantly for me, marriage equality would mean that no one could ever tell us again that we aren't a family.'

Both Clare O'Connell and Conor Prendergast, who had spoken just before her, electrified the Constitutional Convention. Clearly and passionately, they made real the issue that the Convention was to discuss that weekend. This was no longer an academic, theoretical or legal discussion. This was, in the words of one delegate, 'about real people living real lives as we speak, all across Ireland'. Marriage equality had just taken on a new urgency, and a new familiarity.

The Constitutional Convention was part of the compromise negotiated between Labour and Fine Gael when they formed a coalition government in March 2011. The general election had taken place during a deep economic recession and in the humiliating aftermath of Ireland having to be bailed out by the troika (the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission). Fine Gael had won seventy-six seats, making them the largest party in the Dail for the first time in the party's history, although they lacked an overall majority. The Labour Party had beaten their previous best, winning thirty-seven seats, to become the second largest party.

The putative coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour, like all of Ireland's political parties, had a record of supporting equality for lesbian and gay people. Labour had been central to the achievement of the decriminalisation of homosexuality and equality legislation, while their private members Civil Union Bill in 2006 was key to building support for subsequent civil partnership legislation. In 2004 Fine Gael had been the first party to publish a proposal for civil unions. Both parties had strongly supported the Civil Partnership Bill introduced by the Fianna Fail-Green Party government in its passage through the Oireachtas in 2010. Both had made commitments to progress for LGBT people across a range of areas in their election manifestos. Labour pledged to hold a constitutional referendum to bring in marriage for lesbian and gay couples.

Shortly after the election, over the first few days of March 2011, the two parties began intensive negotiations about government formation. Whether marriage equality would be part of the new Programme for Government was touch and go in these discussions.

The document that was eventually agreed upon and published by the two parties focused primarily on repairing the economy and getting people back to work. However, it also included the aim of 'forging a new Ireland that is based on fairness and on equal citizenship' and it promised to establish a Constitutional Convention which, within twelve months, would consider and make recommendations on six specific issues, including 'provision for same-sex marriage'.

It took until July 2012 to finally set up the Convention, which was established by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Tom Arnold, then Chief Executive of the development charity Concern Worldwide and a respected public figure, was subsequently appointed to chair it. The Convention had 100 members. In addition to Arnold, there were sixty-six people who were randomly selected members of the public and thirty-three people who were elected members of either the Oireachtas or the Northern Ireland Assembly. The first meeting of the Constitutional Convention was in December 2012, and in 2013 they met for a weekend almost every month to discuss and vote on one of the allotted topics.

The Convention was scheduled to discuss 'same-sex marriage' in April 2013. For lesbian and gay people and their families, this was a critical moment. Rejection would set the campaign back years; a recommendation for constitutional change would create a momentum that it would be hard to halt. It was a moment to define what the Irish Republic could become.

Three of the LGBT members of the Oireachtas, Jerry Buttimer TD, John Lyons TD and Senator Katherine Zappone, were delegates to the Convention and several of the other Oireachtas members of the convention were also strong supporters of marriage equality. These included Frances Fitzgerald TD, Charlie Flanagan TD, Aodhan o’ Riordain TD, Mary Lou McDonald TD and Senators Averil Power and Susan O'Keeffe. One of the main opponents of marriage equality, Senator Ronan Mullen, was also a delegate. The debates that eventually played out across the stage of the referendum campaign were solidly rehearsed at the Convention.

The Convention had settled on a format for each of its weekends. On Saturday mornings an expert panel gave delegates an overview of the legal and constitutional context of whatever issue was being discussed. Then representatives from each side made their case to the whole Convention in plenary session before the delegates deliberated in small groups at their tables. Later, each table group reported back to a plenary session and then a question and answer period was held with a balanced panel of stakeholders.