Ed Davitt is an Irishman living in Belgium, whom I actually first met in Poland. It can’t get much more international than that, can it? Ed has recently moved back to Brussels and works there for a Green MEP. He works a lot and is very passionate about it, but in his spare time he also campaigns for LGBTI rights. Some time ago I participated in an LGBTI demonstration in Warsaw Poland, and that’s how I got to know Ed.

He was one of the many people who successfully campaigned to legalise same-sex marriage in Ireland. In order to achieve this, a referendum had to be held.  That is fine if it goes well, but when it comes to LGBTI issues, a good outcome is far from guaranteed. Take the recent example of Taiwan, where almost 70% of the population voted in a referendum against more rights for LGBTI people. I wanted to find out how they handled that in Ireland, so we caught up over a drink recently…

Bruno De Lille: Why did Ireland choose a referendum to introduce same-sex marriage?

Ed Davitt: The LGBTI movement and its allies initially did not want a referendum at all. In fact, we wanted to introduce the opening up of marriage simply by amending the law. And at first it looked as if that could work. In 2007, the Green Party which had promised to do something about it, joined the government and so expectations were high. 

However, during the government negotiations, the government’s Attorney General insisted that any introduction of same-sex marriage by law could be challenged on constitutional grounds, and thus a referendum was necessary. The other party in government, centre-right Fianna Fáil, would not agree to such a move. The governing parties then decided to establish up a Civil Partnership system, instead. For the Greens, this could be a first step towards full marriage equality.

B.D.L.: Did you think such a Civil Partnership was enough?

E.D.: No. But it was a first and perhaps necessary step. It was a bit like getting married without being allowed to call it that way. The Civil Partnership just didn’t go as far as marriage and then there was the symbolism of course: we didn’t want a surrogate, we wanted the real thing. 

The introduction of the Civil Partnership did, by the way, cause a great deal of division within the Irish LGBTI movement. Roughly speaking, the classical movement, which consisted mainly of men, more or less agreed with this approach – Civil Partnership now, to help us get full equality later. The women and the young people were afraid that this would be a serious brake on the introduction of real marriage. So they were resolutely against it.

But without that Civil Partnership, the result of the referendum in 2015 might have been different. I think it gave rise to the idea in the minds of the Irish that male-male and female-female couples existed and wanted to go for lasting relationships. Then the next step to full marriage equality becomes a lot smaller.

“The Civil Partnership just didn’t go as far as marriage and then there was the symbolism of course: we didn’t want a surrogate, we wanted the real thing. “

B.D.L.: They couldn’t get the “devil” back in the box after.

E.D.: No. The issue remained on the political agenda. And it became one of the symbols of an Ireland  that had changed. We had – and have – the image of being an morally super-conservative, super-catholic country, but the mindset of the Irish has changed a lot in recent years. And so the subject came back on the table in the 2011 elections. 

Not via the Greens, because they had disappeared from parliament in that election, but via the Labour Party. They announced that they wanted to change the constitution, but in Ireland you can only do that through a referendum. That’s why all Irish people had to vote on the “Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland” on 22 May 2015. A very ‘sexy’ name for the statement “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

B.D.L.: Were you happy with the referendum after all?

E.D.: We saw it as an opportunity and we seized it with both hands. But we were not happy with the idea that it had to be done this way. We found it humiliating that we had to beg for something that should be a basic right for our LGBTI community. A well-functioning liberal democracy protects its minorities. 

Almost all the political parties supported the Yes-camp and the polls were also very positive, so we believed we could reach a happy ending. At the same time, we knew that the outcome of a referendum can be very unpredictable and that it would be important to motivate everyone to vote. It wouldn’t be the first time that a smaller group of fierce opponents made it because the others thought they had already won and therefore didn’t vote.

B.D.L.: Who were these opponents?

E.D.: It was a mix of people and movements who don’t like the changing Ireland. They are against abortion, euthanasia, the right to divorce and also against same-sex marriage. There was an action group ‘Mothers and Fathers Matter’, some conservative celebrities, but also a right-wing think tank called the Iona institute. There was also assistance from the US: there were many rumours of money and expertise used to support the No-side. 

“We found it humiliating that we had to beg for something that should be a basic right for our LGBTI community. A well-functioning liberal democracy protects its minorities.”

I don’t know if they thought they could win. Sometimes I have the feeling that they saw it more as a dry run for the referendum on abortion. Fortunately, they also lost that battle. But again: every vote counts in a referendum and we could not afford to underestimate them.

B.D.L.: And the church? They are also against marriage for everyone, so what did they do?

E.D.: The Catholic church was indeed against same sex marriage, but in fact they did not intervene in the debate very often. Because of the many scandals in Ireland, they have lost a large part of their support and their influence. People still listen when the church or the pastors say something, but many don’t take it into account anymore. You can take that literally. At one point there were priests who called for a No-vote during the sermon, with the result that some believers got up and left the church. It shows once again how much my country has changed.

B.D.L.: What tactics did the No-camp use?

E.D.: They were very well organised. Because there were only a limited number of them, it was easy to coordinate messaging and campaigning, of course. You could very seldom catch them in explicitly homophobic statements. They behaved in a very disciplined way and tried to present themselves as ‘the voice of reason’ in order to sow doubt. 

“There is already the Civil Partnership, why do these gays and lesbians always want more and more? Aren’t children entitled to a father and a mother? There is a big risk that the Irish LGBTI people will want to have (commercial) surrogacy as well. Can you force an adopted child to end up with LGBTI parents?” And so on.

They hoped that people would vote No out of caution: not because they were against the proposal, but because they were afraid that children would become the victims of it. They had successfully used this tactic in earlier referendums on abortion or the right to divorce and they hoped that it would work again. But this time they didn’t succeed. 

They also constantly introduced themselves as ‘victims’. Throughout my life, their discourse determined what we were and weren’t allowed to do, and yet they declared that they were marginalised, that they weren’t allowed to tell ‘the truth’ … Very Trumpian actually. It was cynical: everywhere they were given a platform, to constantly complain that they had nowhere to defend their ideas. Unfortunately, such a discourse works for people who think that the world is changing too quickly, for people who were in charge and who have never had any dissent so far.

“We explained that we were happy when they married the man or woman in their life, but that it was not fair that we as gay and lesbian people were not allowed to do the same. That struck a chord with many people.”

B.D.L.: How did you fight back?

E.D.: It was crucial that the various LGBTI movements that had taken a stance on the civil partnership issues now need to come together to fight a united force and, together with a number of civil society organisations, they formed the ‘Yes Equality’ campaign. Speaking with one voice was a powerful tool.

Moreover, they tried very hard to run their own campaign on their own terms – avoiding being pulled into the narratives and half truths of the No-camp, to deny them their faux-emotional lines of argument and concern. That wasn’t always easy for the Yes activists to do, because for most of us the issue was deeply personal and emotional, of course. But we knew that it was crucial to  tell our own story, not react to theirs.

And tell a story we did – not about high-minded principles, but about people. ‘Keep it human.’ That’s how you can actually summarize the campaign. Yes Equality and others made it clear that it was not about something theoretical but about the happiness of everyone’s daughters, sons, brothers, neighbours, friends and acquaintances. That we were happy when they married the man or woman in their life, but that it was not fair that we as gay people were not allowed to do the same. That struck a chord with many people. ‘Fairness’ is a very Irish concept that everyone can get on board with.

B.D.L.: What were your best moments during the campaign?

E.D.: Something I really loved was the #VoteWithUs initiative (http://www.votewithus.org/). Dozens of people from all over Ireland took their mobile phones and filmed themselves explaining why they were going to vote ‘Yes’. LGBTI people, of course, but also a lot of heterosexuals who thought it was important that their family members, friends or colleagues were finally treated fairly. There were Brighid and Paddy, a couple who had been married for 50 years. They explain that 20 years ago they might have voted ‘No’ but in the meantime they realised that everyone has a right to happiness and love. And that they hope that their grandchildren would be able to grow up in such a world. A very old couple, just sitting on the couch at home, making a movie in a clumsy way. But you couldn’t watch it without being touched. And there were many more like that. That was so strong.

And then there were the hundreds of people who went door to door all over the country. In rural areas in particular, I think the referendum was won door-to-door in this way. When someone is at your doorstep, the choice you have to make is given a face. Those people also made it clear that they did not ask for anything extra, that they did not want any special rights, but simply the same thing as all other Irish people. Then there was the several thousand young Irish who came back from abroad to help out with the campaign and vote too.

It was also heartening to have the support of so many celebrities. Mary McAleese, our former president, is a prominent Catholic but also a mother to a gay son, and actively campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. Colin Farrell asked people to vote Yes. The actor Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones) even made a #VoteWithUs movie. And in a lot of radio and TV shows celebrities took our side. Maybe it only makes a small difference, but everything helps. 

“The referendum was won door-to-door. When someone is at your doorstep, the choice you have to make is given a face.”

B.D.L.: Was it still exciting on 22 May 2015?

E.D.: Yes, it was. The first results were positive, but less positive than the polls had shown, but then we were expecting that. Fortunately, the yes vote won all but one of the 43 constituencies. It was a landslide result. Just over 60% of all Irish voters came to vote and 62.07% of them voted ‘Yes’. As Irish people, I think we can rightly be proud of that, can’t we? 

B.D.L.: And are you going to get married now?

E.D.: Yes, but first I have to find the right one (laughs)!