Aengus Carroll (LL.M) is co-author of State Sponsored Homophobia 2015, a global survey of law for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). He is ILGA’s member on an Expert Steering Group to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on a Global LGBTI Inclusion Index to run in line with the new Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030).
Although Irish people of all ages voted yes in the marriage equality referendum on 22 May this year, the numbers demonstrate it was the youth vote that assured its success. Such youth turn-out was unprecedented in Irish political life, and flies in the face of conventional political wisdom that young people are apathetic.
Now that the largely untapped youth voice has clearly resounded across this country and with a general election on the horizon, a variety of campaigners and political parties are looking at how to quickly harness that voice again. Youth mobilisation has become a new holy grail in Irish politics. But what campaigners and politicians fail to see is that the youth mobilisation around the marriage equality referendum was the result of over a decade of youth empowerment and infrastructure building in towns and villages across the country by BeLonG To – Ireland’s LGBT youth organisation.
This organisation has designed campaigns around the priorities that young people themselves identifiy, particularly homophobic bullying in schools. It has built a network of politically engaged LGBT youth groups in almost every county in the country. Once the BeLonG To Yes campaign launched in March these groups activated and we saw a huge swell in canvassing and public events.
It is folly to think that in the couple of months before the referendum, young people were magically mobilised through the mysterious power of social media.
Although the impressive BeLonG To Yes campaign engaged with 4.7 million individuals online, it was the fact that they had the infrastructure and credibility with young people, and youth organisations, across the land that turned this into a genuine youth mobilisation.
The message: what kind of country to we want them to grow up in?
What also spurred on this youth mobilisation was a change in the message. The BeLonG To Yes message, initially articulated within youth groups, was not about marriage (marriage is not a youth issue), but about what kind of country we wanted this and future generations to grow up in.
This then became the core message channeled to the 14 national youth organisations which came into alliance with the BeLonG To Yes campaign in late-2014, amongst them ISPCC, Barnardos, Foróige, and the Children’s Rights Alliance.
This messaging allowed the campaign to draw on long-standing relationships. While she was President of Ireland Mary McAleese drew widespread attention by working with BeLonG To to highlight suicidality and mental health amongst LGBT youth. This relationship and message was to prove vital in this year’s marriage equality referendum.
Besides their visibility in the campaign, we know from two measurable sources just how effective the youth mobilisation was. Firstly, BeLonG To’s coalition with the Union of Students in Ireland in late-2014 produced the country’s largest ever voter registration turn-out; over 40,000 new voters.
Their video ‘Its in Your Hands’ acted as a shop window to a lot of the youth sector into the logic of BeLonG To’s thinking that it is in fact in the hands of young people to shape their country.
Secondly, 66,000 individuals registered late on the supplementary register, and they were again predominantly young and identified on polling day as having voted in much higher numbers than the general population: up to 90% at many polling stations.
In the closing days of the referendum campaign, BeLonG To’s long-time ally former-President Mary McAleese delivered a stunning address on why her family was voting yes. In this, she reassured Catholics country-wide that it was permissible for them to do so also. She reminded us that doing so would produce a healthier and happier place for those LGBT children already born and those to be born, channeling the idea of producing the world we want for them.
In the months before the referendum, when the No campaign went after children of non-traditional families in their efforts to alarm the population into voting No, BeLonG To had supports and materials in place.
Having researched how same-sex marriage had been handled in other countries, it was clear that the issue of children would have to be the No campaign’s trump card. BeLonG To Yes was the only campaign to directly address the issue of where children fitted into the same-sex marriage proposal. They did so from the point of view of LGBT children.
Coalition partners such as Foróige put out material at a deep local level in towns and villages. They signaled the idea that young LGBT people should be able and welcome to stay in their communities when they come out, that they could have relationships with those they love, that they would be alright and well received in the place they come from.
This youth coalition’s essential message signaled that family matters much more than ideology or fantasy. So many youth organisations translated the core concept of ‘the kind of country you want’ into their own vision or language, noting their specific points of intersection.
In the week prior to former President McAleese’s timely address, Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited BeLonG To offices. This was his first and only appearance at a LGBT organisation since taking office in 2011. And there he heard from the mouths of babes. He heard directly, he heard authentic young LGBT voices speaking their young truths, and on this occasion he echoed their voices across the land.
He also perceived what we know now to be true: not only did these young ones activate their political selves, but they brought their tens of thousands of adults with them to the polling booths.
One clear take-away from the marriage referendum experience, is if politics wants to mobilise the youth vote in this country, its structures need to meaningfully embrace the insights that Irish youth bring. They need to actually channel their voices. A sustainable marriage of youth and politics is more than a few social media clicks away.