Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Interview with an Irish LGBTIQ activist

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In Ireland, marriage equality for LGBTIQ people was won via a referendum in 2015. Below, we present an interview with Conor Payne, a member of the Socialist Party (Ireland) who was directly involved in the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote.

In Australia, the Turnbull government went into the last election with the promise to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality, although they made no promises that the plebiscite would be binding on parliament. Here, people are becoming increasingly frustrated and weary with the inability of politicians to simply support equality for LGBTIQ people.

Parliament has blocked marriage equality several times since 2004. The plebiscite is the first potential break in this situation. However, many supporters of marriage equality are against it.

Groups such as Australians for Marriage Equality say that marriage equality would ‘easily’ pass the newly elected parliament. There are reasons to doubt this claim. It depends on over a dozen MPs who have opposed marriage equality in every vote, but who say they would support it now if they were ‘allowed’ to in a conscience vote.

The call for a conscience vote requires Turnbull to sacrifice his already insecure standing within the Liberals; Turnbull has already shown he is not driven by principle, consistently voting against marriage equality despite ‘believing’ in it.

The truth is, the Coalition, the ALP and the Greens are all using the issue as a political football. The Greens and the ALP have said they will block the plebiscite, while knowing that the Coalition is likely to block a conscience vote and that this will put off marriage equality for another term, maintaining the parliamentary deadlock. At time of writing, the ALP is starting to negotiate with the Coalition, likely hoping to marginalise the Greens. But history shows that neither major party is concerned for the sake of LGBTIQ rights.

Meanwhile, the homophobic far right is already trying to mobilise. In September, a bomb threat was made against the proudly pro-LGBTIQ radio station Joy FM in Melbourne. Some painted this as an example of what will happen if the ‘No’ campaign in the plebiscite is allowed to spread hate – but this happened without any campaign.

The bomb threat came after the mere concept of marriage equality was raised. Bullying and violence are reported by more than 70% of LGBTIQ people in Australia. 80% of Victorians in same-sex relationships have been publicly harassed. The homophobic threat exists already.

LGBTIQ activists, and all others fighting for a better world, have never been able to choose the situation they start with. But by building a mass movement, that situation can be changed.

This movement, more than the plebiscite, would allow working class LGBTIQ people to fight for control over the terms of the debate and genuinely take their rights out of the hands of others. It would marginalise the far right, and allow a new generation of young LGBTIQ activists to emerge.

A mass movement around a ‘Yes’ vote represents an opportunity to change a situation that has gone on for far too long. This has begun to play out in Ireland already. We asked Irish activist Conor Payne about the impact of the fight for marriage equality over there.


The Socialist: The 2015 same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland passed with a large majority supporting the ‘Yes’ vote. What was your role as a socialist in the Yes campaign?

CP: The Socialist Party were actively involved in fighting for the strongest possible ‘Yes’ vote through stalls, street meetings and other activities. The referendum poster of the Anti Austerity Alliance, which the Socialist Party is part of, was widely recognised as one of the strongest of the campaign because of its straightforward message – ‘Discrimination Damages Lives’. Our message focused on the Yes vote as a vote for the equality and validation of LGBTIQ people. We also argued that it would strengthen the fight for social change in Ireland; for LGBTIQ rights in other areas, for abortion rights, separation of church and state, etc.

The Socialist: In Australia, some activists are worried that a plebiscite on same-sex marriage will lead to state funding for the No campaign, and set a precedent for minority rights being decided by popular vote. Was there opposition to a popular vote from the left in Ireland?

CP: I think that the Left, in principle, doesn’t believe that minority rights ought to be decided by popular vote – there is obviously a history of referendums being used to attack the rights of immigrants, LGBTIQ people and other minorities.

However, I also think that we shouldn’t put our faith in establishment politicians, or institutions like the courts, to deliver those rights either. In Ireland the establishment and state is deeply conservative and has acted as a barrier to change.

Our starting point should be that change comes from social movements from below. The calling of a referendum allowed such a movement to develop and gave an opportunity for ordinary people to express the aspirations they had for equality and social progress.

The Socialist: We have been told, for example by Dr Grainne Healy of the Irish Yes Equality campaign, that the Irish experience during the campaign was very negative – is that an accurate assessment?

CP: What she says about the nature of the ‘No’ campaign is certainly accurate. They ran a disgusting campaign based on scaremongering, particularly about LGBTIQ people raising children.

But it’s also important to state that this campaign was rejected by an overwhelming 62% Yes vote. The composition of that vote was also important; the ‘Yes’ vote was strongest in working class areas, as high as 90% in some of Dublin’s most deprived communities. That was a really important show of solidarity and it also completely exposed the argument of the conservative forces that marriage equality was the project of some kind of liberal elite.

The positive which is missing from her assessment I think is the fantastic movement of LGBTIQ people, young people and ordinary people as a whole which developed during the referendum campaign. ‘Vote Yes’ badges were everywhere. Thousands of people got politically active doing door to door canvassing and other campaigning work. Tens of thousands registered to vote for the first time, and up to 50,000 emigrants actually returned from abroad to cast their vote! It was this active movement which was able to cut across the fears the ‘No’ campaign attempted to sow, and deliver an overwhelming victory.

The Socialist: LGBTIQ people are at greater risk of suicide than the general population, and some LGBTIQ activists are worried that a plebiscite will cause an increase in suicide or self-harm. Is this something that became worse during the Irish campaign?

CP: I haven’t seen any figures on that. As in many other countries, Ireland has appallingly high rates of suicide and self-harm among LGBTIQ people. The referendum hasn’t resolved any of these issues obviously, the fight for LGBTIQ liberation must continue.

The Socialist: What has been your impression of the impact on the LGBTIQ community post-referendum?

CP: I think that almost immediately after the referendum there was a change. There were huge celebrations obviously, but also a noticeable increase in LGBTIQ couples being open in public. Attendance at Prides that summer increased massively and political confidence has increased. This is reflected in the political victories which have been won since the referendum.

Before the referendum, the government had been planning an extremely restrictive version of Gender Recognition rights for Trans people – one of the worst aspects of it was that it required those who wished to change their legal gender to get a divorce if they were married. After the referendum, the bill was significantly improved. That requirement was dropped, and a ‘self determination’ model was adopted in the new bill.

The result also forced the government to remove the ‘religious exemption’ from equality legislation. This had allowed the churches, which control the majority of schools and hospitals in Ireland, to discriminate against LGBTIQ workers.

Both of these laws still have significant problems, and homophobia and transphobia are still enormous problems in Irish society as elsewhere. But there’s no question that the victory in the referendum strengthened the fight for equality in other areas.

The Socialist: How has the successful same-sex marriage campaign affected the fight against the abortion ban?

CP: A crucial impact of the scale of the referendum victory was that it was a blow against the idea that Ireland was a society with a fundamentally conservative majority who are resistant to change. This has made it much more difficult for politicians to argue that a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment (the constitutional ban on abortion) would be defeated. It has played a role in increasing the confidence of the pro-choice movement, which is currently gathering huge momentum.

The Socialist: Do you have any advice for activists wanting LGBTIQ equality in Australia?

CP: Regardless of whether there is a referendum or not, a grassroots movement involving as many people as possible is what will bring victory on the issue of marriage equality. That kind of mass pressure can force politicians to act, but it can also play a big role in winning the vote if there is a referendum. We should have confidence that if we build that kind of campaign, that ordinary people will respond positively, and not be afraid to directly confront the lies and bigotry of the ‘No’ campaign.


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