From that moment, we knew this was an ally we could trust; we could never have imagined then that he would become a man we would also grow to love.
Once the result of the marriage referendum was known back in 2015, Panti tweeted at him that there was only one straight man she might fancy marrying: Noel. Noel’s wife, Sinead McSweeney, tweeted back – hands off, he was already taken!
When word broke on July 10 that Noel had died after a short illness, Panti tweeted his shock and sadness that on the same day Panti had got married, the man who had played a huge and invaluable role in making it possible to marry had died.
That same shock and sadness reverberated through very many people who were involved in Marriage Equality, GLEN and Yes Equality. It came as a terrible blow that the man who had been instrumental in shaping the campaign to win our constitutional equality was gone. The LGBT+ community has lost one of its fiercest allies. Ireland has lost one of its finest minds and one of its most compassionate public figures.
Noel came to the Yes Equality campaign having had limited involvement in LGBT+ issues before then. He brought his tall big self, his seemingly gruff personality, his brilliant strategic mind and an acute knowledge of what we called ‘middle Ireland’ and how we might reach them and persuade them to vote Yes.
But much more than all that, he brought enormous empathy and compassion. He grew in depth of understanding throughout the campaign as he talked to everyone involved, got to appreciate the sting of exclusion that LGBT+ people had experienced, and wondered aloud how he – and Ireland - had been blind to that. He wept when we talked of what belonging meant to us, and why winning the referendum was about far more than marriage.
He threw himself into all aspects of the campaign. He was very generous and accessible with his knowledge, contacts and experience. He watched what people were doing and quietly praised and encouraged.
On the campaign, we all fell a bit in love with Noel – and with his bright, curious, then 6 year-old son Séamus, who became a delightful fixture at our events. We were inspired and invigorated by his passion to right a deeply unjust wrong. His occasional pep talks to the entire team lifted confidence, instilled hope and enthusiasm and led us all to believe that we could do it.
He was wowed by the number of volunteers, the outpouring of unasked for videos, memes, the speed of tweets and Facebook shares going viral. He was sure this was a defining moment in Irish campaigning history, we believed him and it lifted our game; we overcame past histories; we left divisions behind us and we focussed on a single goal – to win the referendum as Yes Equality, a single, united civil society organisation.
One moment when, unusually, Noel took front stage was when he reluctantly went on the Prime Time panel debate with Frances Fitzgerald TD and Minister for Justice and Grainne on the Yes side and he took on those campaigning against us, against him. His fierce, passionate, compelling call for a Yes - ‘What parent wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth to fight for justice and equality for their child?’ was a pivotal moment. He, as a straight, middle-aged, professional man, speaking with the passion, authenticity and love that we came to know, reached into the hearts and minds of middle Ireland and moved them to Yes.
Noel quietly told the story of walking up Dame Street on the Monday after the referendum and two young women asking him if he was Noel Whelan. Unclear what was coming next, he hesitatingly said yes. The young women then told him how thankful they were to him as he had now made their dreams of marrying possible. Noel burst into tears.
Noel said that working on the marriage equality campaign was one of the best things he had ever done in public life. Those of us who worked with him got to work with one of the most brilliant, generous and warm people we will ever encounter. He never wanted gratitude or praise, but we will be forever grateful and always remember a man who now has a special place in our lives and hearts, and in the lives of every couple who marry – whether they know of him or not.
Co-Directors Yes Equality
Co-authors with Noel Whelan of Ireland Says Yes 2017