With Ireland set to hold the world’s first nationwide referendum on marriage equality on May 22, activists around the world are watching the country for possible lessons in future campaigns for LGBT rights.
But another reason the world is watching is Ireland’s large emigrant community — one of the country’s most famous exports is its people. Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 120,000 people left Ireland, with many of them settling in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada. Many of these emigrants are millennials, the age group most likely to support marriage equality.
Irish law denies ex-patriates the vote if they’ve been out of the country for more than 18 months.
Irish law denies ex-patriates the vote if they’ve been out of the country for more than 18 months; voting is also not allowed at Irish embassies overseas. But young activists are working to mobilize Irish people around the world.
Joey Kavanagh started a “Get the boat 2 vote” movement in the UK after he realized that he wouldn’t be able to vote from abroad. He’s helping organize a group trip to Dublin from London via Holyhead to vote on May 22.
“Many of those who have emigrated in recent years are young people in search of better employment opportunities, many of whom intend to return to Ireland at some point in the future,” Kavanagh says. “The reaction to our campaign has been hugely positive and it really seems there was an appetite for something like this. We have had emails from people in places as far away as Australia, Canada, New York and Singapore expressing interest in coming home.”
Vancouver resident Síomha Brock co-founded the “Be my yes” campaign with her childhood friend Stephen Markham, who lives in Dublin. The campaign encourages ex-pats who’ve lost their ability to vote or cannot travel home for the vote to call their friends and family in Ireland and ask them to cast a Yes vote on their behalf. Their campaign video has been watched by thousands on YouTube.
“A lot of Irish people abroad are living in places where gay marriage is legal and see the positive effects this has on society,” Brock says. “Speaking to a lot of Irish overseas, I think there will be a deep feeling of sadness amongst them if this doesn’t pass. They feel totally helpless having no entitlement to vote and most of them want to see positive change in Ireland.”
Both “Be my yes” founders hope to be married and have their marriages recognized at home someday, but Markham says the referendum is also an important opportunity to advance the cause for equal rights globally.
Ireland is the first country to ever hold a public vote on gay marriage.
“Ireland is the first country to ever hold a public vote on gay marriage. It is a tremendous opportunity for us as a society to throw down the gauntlet to similar countries that may be perceived as overly conservative and show that we are the welcoming society we believe we are,” he says.
25-year-old Toronto resident Laura Enright, originally from County Wexford, is actually making the trek home to vote.
“It cost me $750 to fly home and time off work. I’m going to canvass, too. It’s not a hardship as I know it’s the right thing to do, and my mam is flying home too from the UK and it’s something my whole family is really pulling together to do,” Enright says. “I have found myself getting anxious about it all though and I know my family and friends are having a tough time as they are feeling really judged right now.”
Even Canada’s national LGBT rights organization, Egale, has weighed in on the marriage referendum, releasing a video encouraging Irish people in Canada to reach out to friends and family at home to vote Yes. Egale’s executive director, Helen Kennedy, is an Irish-Canadian dual citizen.
“We can’t vote, but they can. We hope that this video will encourage those who might have been thinking of staying home to get out and vote instead. If not for themselves, then for someone they love whose voice wouldn’t be heard,” Kennedy says in a press release.