Great opportunities and important lessons emerge from Ireland’s historic endorsement of marriage equality

Joe O'Connor, organiser IMPACT
Joe O’Connor, organiser IMPACT

In a video recorded as part of IMPACT’s campaign in support of marriage equality, General Secretary Shay Cody used the old trade union mantra of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ to reflect his reasons for supporting the YES campaign.

At ballot boxes on Friday, young people right across the country turned out in large and previously unseen numbers to signify that this was a concept which is still relevant to today’s younger generations of Irish voters.

One of the core principles of what our union stands for is ‘to promote equity and equality in society’, and we can rightly be proud of the part played by IMPACT and the trade union movement as a whole in bringing about this historic change for Irish society.

However, as the country now catches its breath following a frantic and intense campaign, many are now asking the following questions- With what former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore described as ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ now resolved, what is next for the human rights and equality agenda? And how can the ‘social revolution’ of young people previously disengaged from the political process now be maintained and mobilised as a consistently vibrant feature of our democracy?

This referendum would not have passed without cross-generational support, and it is important to remember that Irish people young and old, and in most parts of the country, gave a resounding yes to marriage equality.

However, those that previously attempted to portray young people in Ireland as being apathetic, disengaged and self-interested have been proven wrong. It is clear that when something connects with young people in Ireland in the way that this issue did, no further incentive is needed.

This reaffirms a study by the European Commission in 2013 on ‘European Youth: Participation in Democratic Life’, which showed that while Irish young people are much less likely on average to be active in political parties, they are amongst the most active in Europe when it comes to volunteering and participating in other areas such as sports clubs, societies, community groups and youth clubs.

What is of most interest to those of us who seek to strengthen and build our movement for the future is that the mobilisation of young people in Ireland on an issue which did not directly affect the majority of those involved in the campaign, demonstrates that young people in Ireland embrace the ideas of collectivism and solidarity which have been the cornerstones of trade unions in Ireland over the past century.

We can learn plenty from the success of the ‘YesEquality’ campaign which sparked the social revolution. The broad-based, simple and positive messaging of the campaign linked to emotive personal stories generated a wave of grassroots activism and online momentum. These are lessons which can help to inform our own campaigns.

As an Organiser with a focus on recruiting new members as well as engaging our current members to get involved and become active participants in the union, this is of particular interest. It is clear that while we still have many members who see being part of the union as an effective insurance policy or are motivated by receiving good value for money, we undoubtedly have many more that can be empowered through the union focusing and campaigning on issues relevant to them and to wider society.

I have already seen this from the level of support and interest both inside and outside the union which has been generated by our work on the homeless campaign and on internships in the short period since I joined the staff team at IMPACT.

As an organisation committed to equality, the newfound interest and engagement of a sizeable cohort of Ireland’s younger generations in the concept of equality can only be a welcome development. We now need to see if this can be translated into an interest in achieving economic as well as social equality, and how we can craft our own message to best appeal to this demographic.

This weekend Ireland showed that it has an appetite to take the journey towards real social change and building a fairer society for all. Trade unions must now take up the challenge of providing a vehicle for young people to be a part of this journey.