I grew up in Dublin on the Northside, the middle child of seven children. The first in my family to go to university, I went to UCD in the late ’70s. I worked for about ten years as a teacher and then went on to work as an editor, then started to work as a consultant on a European funding project. I’ve been doing consultancy for the last 25 years.
When Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan took their court case against the Irish government to have their Canadian marriage recognised, they invited a few of us over to their house to talk about how we might support them. That was really the formation of Marriage Equality. Myself, Ailbhe Smyth, Denise Charlton and a number of other women came together and decided we would develop a support group for Katherine and Ann Louise, which we called KAL. After about a year of working on that we realised needed something that would be wider that the court case. So, we formally launched Marriage Equality (ME) in 2006.
When we began, it was very clear that lots of people in the LGBT community thought marriage was completely irrelevant or way down the list of priorities. I think the fact that we continued to talk within the community and brought together people from different organisations together to be on the board of ME – including the NLGF and LGBT Noise – that was a really important piece of work to build a movement.
We had great difficulty as an organisation in raising funds after Atlantic Philanthropies ended their pivotal support in 2012, but we did it through the generosity of friends and colleagues, and people who would come to a pub quiz or a lunch. We managed against all the odds, to keep the doors of ME and to still be around, to be able to be one of the leading organisations for the referendum.
Fighting for marriage equality through a referendum was never part of our plan. KAL had lit the spark, the court case had run its way and although it didn’t win, it drew a lot of attention, along with the work of ME with politicians and around the country raising awareness. Once the constitiution convention took place was a sense that finally those almost ten years of work were leading to this wave, this momentum of public support.
Building the Yes Equality campaign was all about awareness raising and calming people’s fears, particularly about children, and in some ways that learning, over a decade, played out over and over again. All the issues about children were were dealt with in the legislation which Francis Fitzgerald brought through before the referendum, and in some ways we managed to clear away a lot of the fears. All people had to answer was ‘do you think same same sex couples should be able to get married’.
Was I adrift when the campaign was over? No! I thought ‘Jesus, it’s over – thank God we won!
I’m very sad to see GLEN, an organisation that achieved so much for LGBT rights over so long, go in such a fashion. I think there is still a need for an umbrella organisation to deal with so many of the remaining issues that there are for us in the LGBT community. I think there will be a gap, and I hope it will be filled, but I think for all of us who are running NGOs, we do have to watch our governance.
I’m confident that the charities regulator will find that no individual person has benefited from any of the mismanagement that has taken place. Frankly, I think to go into an organisation and find there are governance issues – that’s what happens to many new CEOs or managers. What they do is: they go in, tidy it up, make sure people are up to scratch with governance, and they continue with an organisation that is renewed and whose policies and practices are absolutely above reproach.
I’m disappointed that instead GLEN found itself in what has been called a “perfect storm” and the board have let the remaining staff go and the organisation has closed. I suppose I feel particularly for the staff who have been part of that organisation for many years, and have done such great work.
Although we’ve achieved our goal, Marriage Equality hasn’t quite closed its doors yet. I’ve been managing two ‘legacy’ projects, one of which is the book Crossing the Threshold. It has 28 individual contributors, not just across the board and management of Marriage Equality, but people right across other organisations, people who played significant supportive roles. So, I’ve been essentially editing that for the last two years. It is a ‘legacy’ book – it’s a reflection on the ten years of the process.
We also have a documentary which will feature as part of this year’s GAZE festival. It’s called The 34th, because it was the 34th amendment to the Irish Constitution which gave us marriage equality. When those two legacy pieces are done we will be closing down ME and no, I don’t think I’ll feel adrift. I think I’ll feel ‘job done!’ And I’ll get on with life.
’Crossing the Threshold: The Story of the Marriage Equality Movement’ is published by Merrion Press, €24.99. ‘The 34th’ opens the GAZE film festival on Thursday, July 27, gaze.ie