How the Yes was won: the inside story of the marriage referendum

Weekend Read: Can you campaign without posters? Should well-known gay people be kept out of sight? What will persuade middle-aged men to vote for same-sex marriage? Three Yes Equality insiders explain how they did it, in this extract from their new book

Noel Whelan's first day in the Yes Equality office was March 24th this year, a Tuesday. He had volunteered to be a strategic adviser to the group, which was leading the campaign for a Yes vote in the marriage-equality referendum to be held two months later, on Friday, May 22nd.

That morning the group had taken possession of a second large room in Clarendon House, behind the Westbury Hotel in central Dublin, and Noel spent the day in it with Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan, Yes Equality's directors, sitting down one by one with campaign colleagues, among them Tiernan Brady of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen), who was also Yes Equality's director of political engagement; Sandra Irwin-Gowran, also of Glen, who was responsible for setting up and supporting Yes Equality groups across the country; Moninne Griffith, a director of the longer-established Marriage Equality group, who was now leading on mobilisation and the campaign's Yes Bus; Craig Dwyer, Yes Equality's social-media expert; and Andrew Hyland, also a director of Marriage Equality, who was heading the campaign's communications operation. It would give Whelan a more detailed picture of their functions and a feel for the campaign infrastructure already in place.

Tiernan told them about something he had seen in the news coverage of the last weekend of the Scottish independence referendum, the previous September. In one report he had spotted a young woman standing on her own in a square in Inverness, wearing a home-made placard on which she had painted "I'm Voting Yes, Ask Me Why". "That's it," Noel said. "That's what we've been looking for."

In their own discussions they had focused increasingly on the need for the Yes campaign to have a soft tone, on the need to defend against a characterisation of it as bullying or threatening, and on the need to tap into the rich vein of personal stories. They had found the slogan that would capture the spirit of their campaign.


Noel is a political veteran; besides being an Irish Times columnist, he has advised Fianna Fáil and is author of The Tallyman's Campaign Handbook. He and the other veterans involved in the discussions had realised that this referendum campaign would have to be very different from its predecessors.

The key was to create, in an uncontrived way, a calm environment in which such stories could be heard. At the same time the campaign had to invite unsure voters to share what was on their minds. It couldn’t just claim to be sensitive to voters’ concerns about marriage equality; it also had to engage with their doubts.

The published opinion polls over the previous year had all shown overwhelming majorities in favour of marriage equality. In recent months two polls had put the Yes vote at about 80 per cent, but everyone in Yes Equality believed that much of this support was very soft and might easily slip away.

In his presentations to Glen events the previous year Noel had used the analogy of the seating in a conference hall to convey the way public engagement develops during a referendum. For a long time before polling day only the first couple of rows are full – and then only with political hacks, activists and journalists. It isn’t until the campaign properly begins that other rows are filled, as people begin to engage, although even then the hall is half-empty. During the last week or 10 days the room fills, as people begin to tune into the debate and make up their minds.

Research, research, research

In late January, after detailed Red C polling of voting intentions, Peter McDonagh, a polls adviser for Fianna Fáil, had prepared an analysis for Yes Equality, identifying key target audiences. The research company Bricolage had then worked with four focus groups of swing voters. Two sessions were with groups of potential Yes voters, one made up of women aged between 40 and 60, the other a group of men and women from 25 to to 35.

The younger group were thoroughly disengaged from the traditional news agenda and prevailing political discourse. But they were intense users of social media, following opinion-formers and sharing views online. They were also strongly supportive of marriage equality; many wondered why a referendum was even necessary.

But although they were passionate and engaged, these 25- to 35-year-olds were not active. The research report concluded, with some prescience, that “getting this generation to take ownership of what many saw as their issue would be a key challenge for effecting this change”.

The focus group of middle-aged women were more inclusive on the issue than their male counterparts. The women wanted to find out and understand the perspective of gay and lesbian people, and they had a more diverse view of family than that which they felt had been imposed on them. They had little time for church teaching on these or other social issues, but they were often influenced on the topic by their children.

The importance of middle-aged men

Bricolage also conducted two focus groups with “soft Yes” voters composed of men between 40 and 60. These were even more revealing. The participants had a sense that the prevailing winds were for Yes and were influenced by political correctness. This partly explained why they said they would vote Yes although they appeared to have no personal connection with the issue.

As one of them put it, “I will vote Yes but not because I really care either way.” Theirs was a passive live-and-let-live attitude; they also had what the research report termed “a deep-seated unease about cultural change” and feared that allowing marriage for same-sex couples might reflect a pattern of social change that, as another participant put it, “might snowball”.

When these middle-aged men were shown media presentations of the No arguments, their inclination towards Yes was disrupted. They were no longer prepared to accept the suggestion that the referendum was just about marriage.

The No arguments put to them in the focus groups seemed to confirm existing doubts, and they did not understand why marriage mattered so much to gay people. This made them susceptible to the suggestion that civil partnership should be enough and exposed what Bricolage described as “an urgent need to articulate” why marriage mattered so much to the gay and lesbian community.

Another key recommendation from the research company was that the issue of children and families needed to be addressed head-on. The focus groups had confirmed that it was an underlying issue with middle-aged voters, particularly men.

Concerns about children were the soft underbelly of the marriage-equality issue. The key question was how to handle the issue in a way that most of the electorate could identify with.

The focus groups had shown that the argument that a Yes vote would enable gay and lesbian people to gain full citizenship was a powerful trigger. So too were the concepts that marriage is a secure foundation for relationships and a social good, and that gay people are entitled to the same foundation for life together as everybody else.

The best response in all groups was to the arguments that all children and grandchildren should be able to marry the people they love and that each son or daughter should have the chance to celebrate their marriage in the same way as their brothers and sisters, irrespective of sexual orientation.

The research also gave some useful insights into tactical issues. It showed that having the Iona Institute as the most prominent opponent, at least at this stage, was an advantage for the Yes campaign. Potential swing voters did not warm to Iona's leading spokespeople, who were seen as standing for an "uptight", "old world", "down with that sort of thing", "reactionary" position that did not appeal to uncertain voters.

When various advocates’ potential impact on voters was examined, well-known gay and lesbian people received a surprisingly negative response. Instead, these soft voters would best be persuaded by people like themselves, “someone with a considered view but who may be a surprising Yes”.

Mothers and fathers advocating equality for their own gay and lesbian children worked very well for all groups, as did, unsurprisingly, advocacy from someone like Mary McAleese. Above all else, the research advised using “opinion-formers whom these voters identify with and who are seen to have considered the issue seriously”.

That Friday afternoon at Clarendon Street, Gráinne, Brian and Noel discussed all this research with Vivian Chambers of Bricolage. They particularly focused on the segment of the electorate that would be a recurring topic as the campaign progressed: those middle-aged men.

Men over 60 seemed to be overwhelmingly against marriage equality and appeared immovable. But it seemed that most men between 40 and 60 who claimed to favour marriage equality could easily be shifted to vote No unless the Yes campaign came up with the right message and messengers.

Lessons from America

Irish research mirrored that conducted in the United States. Freedom to Marry and Human Rights Campaign, two groups that had campaigned for marriage equality across the US, had shared their experiences with Yes Equality.

In late March Thalia Zepatos, Freedom to Marry’s director of research and messaging, visited Dublin and spent a lot of time with Yes Equality’s senior staff. Thalia and Freedom to Marry had long associations with Marriage Equality and more recent connections to Glen.

The American marriage-equality movement had learned its campaign techniques the hard way: it lost 12 state-level popular votes on propositions to ban or introduce marriage equality before it began to win any. In fact, it had won its first referendum for marriage equality only two years earlier.

In many of the unsuccessful campaigns the movement had started off with comfortable majorities in the polls, only to see them slip away. Its subsequent research revealed that this was because it had run the referendums as traditional campaigns for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, and had focused on mobilising its base rather than on engaging middle-ground voters.

Thalia illustrated her key point about the disruptive effect of No campaign messaging by drawing three circles, one inside the other, each representing the layers of a voter’s connectivity with the world around them.

In the inner circle, which she called “me and mine”, is the voter’s immediate family. The next is the extended family or neighbourhood, with whom they engage less often. The outer circle, which Thalia called “others out there”, was where everyone else was, in a place remote from each voter’s concerns.

Those who had gay and lesbian people in their immediate families were overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality, but most people did not share this experience, and to them the concerns of gay and lesbian people were those of “others out there”.

Polling always showed that most voters were instinctively well disposed to letting gay and lesbian people marry; the initial view was along the lines of, “If it matters to them and has no consequence for me, why not?” and “It’s no skin off my nose.”

But marriage-equality opponents in US referendum campaigns had always suggested to voters that marriage equality was not just about what “others out there” wanted. They had warned that it could have real and frightening consequences for voters and their families. The result was to persuade many who initially favoured allowing gay and lesbian people to marry to worry that it could have a downside for their own families, and therefore to vote against it.

Thalia also reiterated some key messages about how the campaign should be presented. Among the things she emphasised was that the right pictures were as important as the right words.

The best strategy for reassuring middle-ground voters was to present gay people and gay couples in the wider context of their families, preferably in group shots where voters had to look closely to guess which of the people were lesbian and gay. The research showed that this reminded voters that, like everyone else, gay men and lesbian women had families and communities. Pictures of gay or lesbian couples on their own were out; in research they came across to voters as isolated. “Why are they always alone?” voters said in focus groups.

How divorce campaigners got it wrong

The team were also anxious to learn from previous Irish referendums on social issues. Around this time the online magazine Totally Dublin published a long piece on the prospects for marriage equality by Jack Gibson, under the headline " How to win your referendum". It included a lengthy interview with Anne Connolly, a prominent liberal activist, who had been a lead campaigner in the 1986 and 1995 divorce referendums. Her explanation of why they had lost the first vote but marginally won the second was fascinating.

Connolly told how, between the two referendums, she and others had brought together a diverse group to analyse what had gone wrong. The main thing that emerged, she said, was that voters had a range of fears that they never got a chance to articulate.

“We had effectively created an environment that shot down these fears, or positioned them as being Luddite, conservative, reactionary or unsympathetic . . . We had been effectively saying, ‘You’re uncool if you want to vote No to divorce.’ The more we created a confrontational, conflictual positioning, the more we were actually pushing them into a No-vote mode. We needed to get a deeper understanding of what those fears were about and not just pooh-pooh them.”

Connolly also explained that divorce campaigners had got the tone wrong in 1986. In the second outing, those leading the effort for divorce came together as the Right to Remarry campaign. This time they recognised that the tone “had to be a lot warmer, more inclusive and understanding, more aimed at the mainstream. We had to position what we were saying,” Connolly stressed. “You don’t necessarily want [divorce] for yourself – and that’s fine – but it is possible to be generous and think of other citizens who want to behave differently. It was then about collecting people who could speak to those fears . . . theologians across most faiths, journalists and social commentators. And we just facilitated a discussion.”

Reading this in March 2015, the co-ordinators of the Yes Equality campaign saw Connolly’s remarks about the change of approach as a succinct summary of what the Yes Equality campaign now also needed to do. If anything, the tone had to be even softer.

The one-page strategy

The barrister Peter Ward had been a leading spokesman for Right to Remarry. Now a senior counsel, he had also been active, with Mary O'Toole, Nick Reilly and the Glen board members Fergus Ryan and Muriel Walls, among others, in setting up the Lawyers for Yes group for the marriage-equality referendum. Brian, Gráinne and Noel decided to ask Peter to join Yes Equality's advisory group, where he proved most useful.

They then had to turn all this analysis into key decisions about strategy and positioning. Using the concept of “I’m Voting Yes, Ask Me Why”, they had to decide what Yes Equality could do for the remaining seven weeks, and in what order. After many discussions they set out their strategic decisions in a one-page campaign plan. In its ultimate form, finalised 10 days after the three of them had begun to work together, it said the campaign’s objectives were to lead, support and co-ordinate all the Yes-vote activity; orientate the campaign as much as possible towards middle-ground older voters; reassure, persuade and motivate that target audience to engage with the campaign issue and vote Yes; mobilise core supporters to campaign; and defend the Yes position, counteract misleading messages and challenge misinformation and fear-mongering.

The second and third objectives were an unequivocal statement that Yes Equality would be going all out for what it began to call “the million in the middle”.

The page went on to set out the chronology. There would be three phases to the campaign. The first, which was to run through April to the first week of May, was called Starting Conversations. Campaigners would encourage people to engage with others in conversations about marriage equality. Under the banner of “I’m Voting Yes, Ask Me Why” there would be neighbourhood invitation events, larger public gatherings and on-street opportunities for members of the public to speak about why they were voting Yes.

The second stage, Full Engagement, would run from May 5th. It would include high-profile canvassing, participation in national and local media debates, putting a newsletter through every letter box in the land, and a 26-county bus tour.

They called the final phase, in the last days of the campaign, Closing Argument.

The plan ended with a flourish: “From now on, all our messaging, activity and spending will go to delivering on these objectives and anything else is not our work.”

No credibility without posters

As well as building on earlier relationships with key media, the campaign began to build closer working relationships with senior politicians. Early one morning Noel and Mark Garrett, the chairman of Yes Equality's advisory group and a former special adviser to Eamon Gilmore when he was the Labour Party leader, went early one morning to have an initial chat with Alex White TD, Labour's campaign director, and the party's then general secretary, David Leech.

Labour was going to run a full-throttle campaign on what it saw as its own issue; the challenge would be to hold its activists back until mid-April, when Labour planned to kick off its campaign. It, too, was conscious that for the campaign to be seen as Government-led would be counterproductive, so Labour was anxious to work closely with and even through Yes Equality.

Alex was fully committed; as it happened he had a brother who was gay, and he was encouraged to tell that story. He would prove to be one of the most effective political performers in the campaign.

The following day Brian, Gráinne and Noel went with Tiernan to meet Simon Coveney, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine and for Defence, Fine Gael's campaign director. Jerry Buttimer TD, its deputy campaign director, was also at the meeting.

They found Coveney focused on his task. He had asked the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, for the role, clearly feeling that as a married man and a non-Dublin Minister with a rural focus at one of his ministries he could help to reassure middle-ground Fine Gael voters. He had a strong and effective narrative about how and why he himself had changed his mind about marriage equality.

Coveney was already working on reluctant party trustees to get more money for Fine Gael’s campaign, and on developing events, posters and literature that targeted the party’s key audience.

He was surprised to hear that Yes Equality didn’t plan to do posters. “We don’t have the money,” Brian told him. “We presume the parties are doing them, and we are using what funds we have on a bus tour.” Coveney was adamant. “You have no credibility as a campaign unless you do posters,” he told them, “even if it means no bus.” He expressed incredulity that Yes Equality didn’t have enough money for some.

They took the Minister’s point about posters back to Yes Equality’s advisory group and executive, who agreed that the money would just have to be found for both a bus tour and a nationwide poster campaign.

Only €30,000 in the bank

Coveney wasn’t the only one surprised that the campaign was so weakly funded at that stage. Many who joined the team later were shocked that substantial funds had not been raised months earlier.

The reality was that although Marriage Equality had held a series of successful fundraising events over the winter and spring, by the end of March it had only €30,000 in the bank.

The main problem was that the campaign hadn't made a general fundraising appeal to mainstream Ireland. This was in part because campaign-finance rules are very strict. Campaigning organisations had to register with the Standards in Public Office Commission. Donations had to be from Irish citizens, and they were capped at €2,500 per person.

Now that Yes Equality was registered and up and running as the lead umbrella organisation for the Yes campaign, it could write fundraising letters and go online with crowdfunding initiatives. Both proved surprisingly successful – an indicator of the momentum of the campaign. They required skilled fundraisers and networked people who were willing to do the asking.

One fundraising lesson learned early on was the value of immediately sending thank-you letters from Brian and Gráinne. Each day Niamh Griffin of the fundraising section would leave bundles of letters on their desks for them to sign. These thank-you notes often led to further donations.

The fundraising required close compliance with the requirements of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The campaign had to know the identity of every donor who gave more than €100. Kathleen Hunt, the campaign office manager, was a stickler on this point. One man who organised a large dinner party at his house found himself being quizzed by her about the exact home address of each guest.

No babies on posters

Having decided to produce posters, Yes Equality now had to decide what they would look like. It asked Adam May and his team at Language, the advertising and design agency, to come back within five days with ideas.

Printing and putting up the posters would take about two weeks, so, as Kathleen kept reminding everyone, design decisions would have to be made within the week.

Other options were also being explored. The advertising agency Havas Worldwide offered help through Vivian Chambers of Bricolage. The team were instinctively loyal to Language, whose designs for Yes Equality were already becoming iconic, but they realised that creative competition could add value.

Language pitched four ideas for posters to Brian, Gráinne, Noel, Tiernan, Andrew and Craig the following Monday afternoon.

The first depicted toddlers, with a message about the importance of being allowed to grow up as equals. This option was quickly dismissed. Using babies for a marriage-equality referendum was not a runner.

The next showed an older man and woman dressed as Superman and Batman, with a line that emphasised voters’ potential superpower to create equality. This made everybody smile but was parked for later use, perhaps at a second, lighter-hearted poster launch.

Adam’s third idea was a striking image of Mary McAleese. Everyone took a deep breath when he unveiled it. It was arresting but, sadly, impractical. It might be seen as inappropriate for the former president, and she was unlikely to approve it. It would be unfair to ask her.

Language’s fourth poster idea was large type on a white background, using the now distinctive Yes Equality look, saying “Loving, Generous, Equal, Fair, Tolerant,” with the strapline “There are many words to describe Ireland. On 22nd May we just need one – Yes.” This worked well as a billboard, but the words might look cluttered or lost on a lamp-post placard. There was also debate about including the word “tolerant”, which gay and lesbian campaigners usually resisted, not seeing themselves, understandably, as needing to be tolerated.

The team decided to use it only as a billboard, at a launch the following Friday, and to swap “tolerant” for “inclusive”.

They went straight from Adam’s presentation to Havas’s trendy offices, on Leeson Street, where Bob Coggins, Peter O’Dwyer, Gary Boylan and their team presented two imaginative concepts that just didn’t work – in large part because of confusion about the brief. It had not been made clear to them that it was for a lamp-post poster.

Overnight Havas turned the situation around, coming up with a poster that captured the essence of the campaign. It showed two speech bubbles: a larger one saying “Vote Yes” and a smaller one giving a short reason why. It could be executed in a variety of striking colours, with a slightly different answer on each. Gráinne, Brian and Noel decided on red, green and blue versions, with smaller bubbles that said “Because marriage matters”, “For a fairer Ireland” and “For a more equal Ireland”.

They also made sure it would work on a lamp post. At the suggestion of Fianna Fáil’s general secretary, Seán Dorgan, they printed three full-size samples and put them on a pole outside the office on Clarendon Street, to see how they worked. Although the campaign could afford to put up only 5,000 of them, the design gave them a strong impact when they went up, a week later.

Little did they realise that the No posters, which would go up in the meantime, would be of even greater assistance to the Yes campaign.

This is an edited extract from Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won, published by Merrion Press