Equality: not the kind of word that can be made to vanish easily. Not once it has been spoken and written everywhere for weeks on end and once people have felt it in their relations with others, be it in a new and unusual way, or in a familiar way, now given deeper affirmation.
True, both the political establishment and corporate Ireland were fully behind a Yes vote. It’s also true that both will try and milk a Yes vote shamelessly. But really, it doesn’t matter. Neither has much control over the meaning of the word ‘equality’. Once people associate it with a certain kind of experience, and a certain way of relating to one another, neither ruling politicians nor big business groupings can reproduce it or satisfy it. That is because what the latter need, ultimately, is power over others, and an empty conception of equality that serves that end.
The usual banalities about great days for democracy are gushing forth from the usual suspects. Nothing warms the heart of a political professional more than the pageantry and routine of voting day with a big turnout. But democracy means more than the orderly forming of lines to put pieces of paper in a box in private. To wit: imagine, if the turnout had been the same, but the tallies being counted out right now were reversed, and that huge majorities of people in constituencies up and down the country were saying to others: no, we shall reserve our right to go on treating gay people as inferior. Who, bar the most hidebound grotto-dwellers, would call such a result a good day for democracy?
Today, there will be wall-to-wall seasoned observers and eminences grises explaining what the unprecedented irruption of young people into political life in this referendum means. Let’s ponder what it does mean for a moment.
First, it means all these seasoned observers, who happily acquiesced in a ‘balanced’ approach that places lies on a par with truth and bigotry on a par with justice, look older and sound more tired than ever.
Second, it means that something old, and not just the reactionary hold of the Catholic Church, is dying, and, with the most resounding Yes majorities emanating from working class constituencies, the idea that Ireland consists of a genteel liberal elite ever struggling to lead the reactionary hordes along the right path, peddled so relentlessly by the country’s organs of repute, is dead.
Third, it means that all those who campaigned, and all those who bore the brunt of abuse and degrading treatment while doing so, can feel history as something that is made by ordinary people doing what they can where they can, and not by grandstanding political dignitaries.
Against this idea of democracy being the orderly forming of lines to put pieces of paper in a box in private, there is another idea operating, and that is the idea of what happens when a certain group seizes the stage and says we are the people and you will recognise us and stop denying us our rights. The campaign led by LGBTQ people, often at a heavy personal toll, shows that this idea of democracy is alive and at work in Ireland, despite all the ongoing attempts to kill it off. And that is very good news.