Una Mullally: What next, for young campaigners in the same-sex referendum?

‘For the first time in people’s young lives, they saw the direct connection between their individual actions and changing the world’

“This was the first time many young people had confronted the status quo, and they won. That won’t be forgotten.”  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

“This was the first time many young people had confronted the status quo, and they won. That won’t be forgotten.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Right now there are thousands and thousands of young people who have been politicised and engaged in the wake of the marriage referendum. What will become of them?

The LGBT community and its allies have thought for a long time about how this energy can be utilised, while also worrying that it will dissipate. While LGBT people led the way for this social change in Ireland, it now belongs to all of us. It is not just something that benefits a minority, but something that benefits the country.

For conservative commentators, there is a temptation to think that the referendum on marriage equality was a one-time-only deal, and that everything will automatically fall back into place the way it was before Ireland led the way globally for LGBT rights. That’s obviously not the case. The entire point of “change” is that things do.

With tens of thousands of people newly registered to vote, and a generation of young people clued in to activism both online and off, nothing will be the same. But who will capitalise on that? The general election on the horizon is the next most obvious landmark, but you have to give people something to vote for.

People voted Yes because Ireland was already a different place and they had already moved on. And a Yes vote was a positive thing. It made people feel good about themselves.

It also showed that, when it comes down to it, the electorate will engage with issues, something the political establishment can’t seem to grasp, focusing instead on policy. If you want people to come with you, you have to give them an idea, not a “plan”.

Much as the referendum result showed that Irish society had already moved on from the issue or debate, this new political engagement and activism has already been fostered, developed and has solidified. For the first time in people’s young lives, they saw the direct connection between individual actions and changing the world. They saw that by knocking on doors, by paying a tenner into a nightclub fundraiser, by talking to their friends, by handing out leaflets, by coming together in solidarity, they directly changed things.

The most cautious campaigners were understandably older ones who had gone up against the system in the past and lost. But this was the first time many young people had confronted the status quo, and they won. That won’t be forgotten.

And no amount of ministers for the diaspora, or lofty political speeches on Ireland as a global community, or keening over emigration, could harness the power of a simple hashtag: #hometovote.

Those on the ground

Throughout the campaign, young people met and hung out with politicians, or at least the ones who were bothered to be on the ground – unlike the rest of the wimps, who gave themselves repetitive strain injury wringing their hands about how some busybodies in their constituency might not like it if they helped the gays. God forbid that lot meet an actual voter.

So, when the general election comes around, and a whole host of young people who voted for the first time in the referendum are voting again, they will look down the ballot paper and see who was there when it mattered to them. In that context, Fianna Fáil’s youth vote is finished.

When it comes to other areas where young people are engaged in politics, those in the youth wings of the parties might holler about how they want to change things as well, and how they are active in politics also. But by virtue of signing up to a political party, they are already succumbing to a conservative establishment that feels impervious to change. This new movement of grassroots youth political engagement is not, and will never be, about party politics, unless a new party or alliance is born from it.

What I found interesting during the referendum was the constant commentary that the youth vote was “undependable”. I believed it was totally dependable from the outset. People were not just voting for their friends, they were voting for something they believed in. And that something wasn’t just “gay marriage”: it was equality.

Equality is an aspiration. It is a big idea. It is the baseline we should be working from. Where’s the big idea when it comes to voting for Fine Gael? What is Labour’s big idea? Sinn Féin tries to depict itself as an alternative, but being an alternative to something that isn’t desirable isn’t an idea. It’s the absence of an idea.

This was a movement

How you do transfer this energy to the political establishment? You don’t and you can’t, because the “establishment” is just that, and this is not about the establishment, it is about something bigger. This was, and is, a movement.

People want to be inspired, and the referendum did inspire. Without exception, every young person I’ve spoken to at the end of the campaign asked and discussed “what’s next?” There is a lust for change, yet the political parties will adopt the same old tactics to try to get people to vote for them. They just don’t get it.

Meanwhile, when you have hundreds of thousands of people feeling empowered, there’s a sense that anything is possible. And guess what? It is.

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