Irish campaigner aims to bring marriage equality to Australia

Glen director Tiernan Brady speaks about helping LGBTI rights activists abroad

Outside the Queen of Tarts café on Cow's Lane, close to the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) offices in Temple Bar, Dublin, Tiernan Brady drinks his latte and adjusts his yellow scarf against the cool breeze.

Since last May, Brady and others involved in Ireland’s successful gay marriage referendum have been in demand – from those who want to hold similar campaigns and from those who simply want to win campaigns of all sorts.

Brady, who acted as political director of the Yes Equality campaign, has now left for Australia to help activists there in the run-up to its referendum on same-sex marriage.

Before his departure this week, Brady, the director of policy at Glen, says: "Obviously it's a real honour to be asked, I'm thrilled to be part of it."


People have come here to learn lessons, “to see how the process went here and how we managed to do it in such a positive way, in a way that didn’t seem to be divisive”, he says.

Following the victory, he was invited to Australia and met campaign groups and political leaders in Canberra.

Before leaving for home, he had been offered a role.

So what can an Irishman bring to the Australian campaign? Ireland hasn't discovered the secret formula for turning lead into gold, he says, but we have learned a few things.

“There are principles that applied in the Irish referendum that I think will apply universally: how do you talk about the values people have and how do you get people to see that this is about someone who is in their family, or someone who lives on the street, or is in their workplace?”

Getting people past “this really old perspective that this is about philosophy or law change or religion or ideology” was a challenge, he says.

“The greatest single thing that moved people was when they got to know a lesbian or gay person. So how do you create a campaign that allows people to see the lesbian or gay person that lives five doors down from them?

“ In a way, the campaign was about pulling back a curtain and allowing people to see a person who was standing at the window all the time.”

He says Irish people have phenomenal human empathy. “Once they could see this was about Philip who lived up the road, that was it, we wouldn’t wish a poor life on anybody. The Australian research points to the same set of values.”

Early in the Irish campaign, Brady says he spoke about the importance of letting people in their own areas be the engine of their own campaigns.

"Our job was to resource them and provide the materials, the research, the T-shirts, the literature, but how you campaign in Cahirciveen is not how you campaign in Ranelagh, and the best person to design a campaign in Cahirciveen is someone from Cahirciveen," he says.

The same is true of Sydney and Alice Springs and Darwin. Australia is a melting pot society and the campaign there will have to make sure "it is talking to everyone", he says, "including Chinese groups, Vietnamese, Pakistani, the Aboriginal people, as well as nearly a million English, 105,000 first-generation Irish, 120,000 Italians and 130,000 Greeks.

“All the time, you are reminding yourself that this is about allowing people to make the journey to voting Yes,” Brady says.

The Irish campaign wasn’t all plain sailing; a positive tone was set and, on the whole, adhered to but there were moments.

Leaning forward and glancing at the dictaphone between us, Brady says he’s “terrified” to say what could have been done better.

“In general, we kept our tone right and kept it centred on human stories rather than saying Ireland’s a bad idea, it has to change . . . but there were moments when that slipped away,” he says.

“There would have been plenty of times where people said things who weren’t really connected to the campaign, and you’re thinking ‘oh God, that’s terrible’, or ‘that’s going to hurt people’, calling people homophobes in the middle of a campaign, but you have to live with the heartache of that.”

The campaign produced an “almost joyful unifying moment for Ireland”, and among the memories he values most are the testimonies of grandparents about why they were voting yes, and the ring-your-granny campaign.

He recognises the importance of consensus which comes, in part, from his two-times experience as a Fianna Fáil councillor on Bundoran's Town Council, beginning in 1999.

It was important in the referendum campaign to ensure all political parties had a sense of ownership of it, he says, and that will matter in Australia, too.

It was also important to plan events and policies that could deliver an end result.

“Nothing ever goes from zero to 100 and gay rights is a really definite example of that,” he says.

“We had decriminalisation [of homosexual acts], then we had civil partnership and a lot of people said that wasn’t enough and were against it, but this is how you create progress.

“You take a step at a time and you show people they have nothing to fear. And each time you take the step, you win more people over and people say this is okay.”

Leukaemia diagnosis

Consensus takes patience, though, and Brady developed that particular skill while a patient at St James’s Hospital in Dublin.

Having graduated from UCD, he developed leukaemia and spent nine months in hospital. He learned a lot.

“If you don’t learn anything from cancer, it was wasted on you,” he says, laughing. “I’m allowed to say that. I don’t know if you’re allowed to say it unless you’ve had it.” The experience changed his view of the world.

“People who have gone through cancer, without even knowing it, they’re aware they are not going to be here forever because they have been to the door and they walked back from it . . . you are more aware of your tenuous grip on being here.”

He doesn’t often talk about it, in case he sounds “saintly”. Putting on his best Donegal-mammy accent, he says he doesn’t want people saying, “ah look at the poor aul fella”.

He says his illness made him realise that “a life unlived is a shame” and “a life not allowed to live should be an offence and an affront to all of us”.

“For LGBT people, that is unfortunately all too true, for far too many people.”

After leaving hospital, Brady went back to Donegal, served on the council and was director of elections for Pat the Cope Gallagher and Mary Coughlan.

In 2007, he felt the draw to go back to Dublin. He went back to college and was offered a post with Glen.

The civil partnership campaign followed, in which the seeds of the marriage referendum campaign were sown.

By the time the equality campaign was in full swing, his own mother, Marie Brady, had added her voice.

"My mother – the choir mistress at the church, a former religion teacher in Northern Ireland, Sunday Massgoer – became this phenomenal voice in the campaign.

“She was on one of the leaflets, she was on local radio, she did pieces in the paper.

“Having people who look like that, [having] parents talk about their children and how much they wanted the same for all of their children, that was so powerful in the campaign.”

He says he hasn’t lived abroad before and it will be a new experience for him at 40.

He speaks with a degree of trepidation and is conscious that Australia is a long way from home.

He’s single, but leaving a “great circle of friends” behind and hoping they will come out and help him canvas.

He is also leaving three sisters in Dublin and his mother in Bundoran.

“I’ll probably end up speaking to her more from Australia because you work harder touching base when you are far away,” he says.