Una Mullally: Either way, the referendum will be a victory for democracy

The biggest impact might not even be on marriage equality, but on the wider Irish political horizon

‘It will be fascinating to observe the impact of the marriage referendum’s engagement of new voters on the next Dáil, which will probably lie somewhere between a butterfly effect and a Freakonomics anecdote.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

‘It will be fascinating to observe the impact of the marriage referendum’s engagement of new voters on the next Dáil, which will probably lie somewhere between a butterfly effect and a Freakonomics anecdote.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

 

My housemate came home from canvassing for a Yes vote in the marriage referendum the other evening and said there were more than 50 people out knocking on doors. The final headcount was actually 75. That was one constituency in one county on one night. Canvassing is organised by local Yes Equality groups all around the country. There’s an interactive map on yesequality.ie where you can find your local group. Mailing lists keep volunteers updated on where the canvassing meet-up points are and how progress is going. Daily email briefings link to relevant articles or radio interviews or talking points. Daily video updates from Yes Equality HQ let everyone know what new campaign has launched and how fundraising drives are doing.

Canvass leaders keep track of which doors have been covered with traditional maps and tracking apps. And little did Brian Acton and Jan Koum know when they founded WhatsApp six years ago, that the app would end up being utilised by Irish people checking in with each other along the highways and byways, around homesteads where they’d knock on the door and start a conversation about the upcoming vote.

Finding their voice

Energy emanates from every aspect of this, but if you think that’s remarkable, even more astonishing is that the vast majority of people involved have never done anything like this before. This enthusiasm on the ground is echoed in those newly registered to vote, with county and city councils run off their feet on voter-deadline registration day last week, stamping and filing thousands of last-minute forms. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) alone was directly involved in registering nearly 28,000 voters. Everywhere around Ireland, people who hadn’t engaged before – or were too young to – have found their voice.

Whatever the referendum outcome, it will ultimately be a victory for democracy and political engagement. Away from the nervous broadcasters thinking about balance, away from the political parties launching their campaigns, away from all of that, in – dare I say – the real world, young people across the country are grabbing flyers and friends and knocking on doors to talk about a vote.

More fool the many politicians who don’t have the guts to knock on doors themselves and take advantage of this surge. Because on the doorsteps, there are no hysterics. There are few people roaring about surrogacy or wringing their hands about which type of family is preferable to another. Because, on the doorsteps, there are also real people. Real people who are interested in talking about the referendum, or having a read of a flyer, or giving a thumbs-up, or politely saying they’re voting No, or asking what the reaction is like in the area.

Of course, none of this matters if people don’t get out and vote on May 22nd. But looking beyond that, what will become intriguing is how all of these newly registered, newly politically engaged young people will engage with next year’s general election.

The biggest impact of the marriage referendum might not even be on marriage equality, but on the wider Irish political horizon. Who are the people who never voted until now going to vote for next year? One’s first vote is a gateway drug. Voting is addictive. Once you’re in, you’re in. Many people only start voting in their 30s, and are then engaged for life. So what happens now, when so many young Irish people who wouldn’t have been bothered to vote on something that didn’t engage them are in on the action in their teens and 20s?

It will be fascinating to observe the impact of the marriage referendum’s engagement of new voters on the next Dáil, which will probably lie somewhere between a butterfly effect and a Freakonomics anecdote.

In terms of how political engagement among young people can be encouraged (and let’s just pretend politicians actually want that to happen), this referendum is a lesson. People who haven’t voted before will engage on issues. Marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples is a real issue for many people, involving real people they know and real lives they are familiar with. It is not an abstract. And the people they know on whom it impacts are not stock photos. For those seeking to engage people further long after this referendum is over, issues are how you get people involved.

Lesson in engagement

It’s sometimes hard for people to connect the shouting in the Dáil or the arguing on the radio or the passing of legislation with real life. Making that connection between the mechanics of politics, those involved in politics, and the issues that affect us in our real lives is engaging. And the Yes Equality campaign is a lesson in engagement.

Like any campaign where the stakes are high, there have of course been flashes of ugliness in debates and so on. But, my word, the reality of young people volunteering in their communities, having conversations about the issues, making videos about what they think, and queuing to register to vote, is just beautiful. Twitter: @UnaMullally

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